Lotusland, garden provocateur

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More from that June visit to Lotusland, Ganna Walska’s 37-acre estate near Santa Barbara, California.

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In the comments to this post, Emily kindly provided a link to an English series “Around the World in 80 Gardens,” in which a visit to Lotusland is covered in Episode 5.

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The host’s reaction to Lotusland, where everything is “unfettered, including taste,” is worth the viewing.
He had a virulent reaction to the abalone-rimmed pool, deeming it a “monstrous hideosity,” which is not unusual. Many hate the kitschy clam shells.
But Walska’s maverick emphasis on climate-appropriate, architectural plants, de-emphasizing flowers, escapes him.
Her precocious, early adoption of the dramatic massing of plants goes unnoticed.

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In the same episode, the Huntington Desert Garden also confounds him. Indeed, no context for the influence of climate is offered in the episode I watched.
Gardens are seen as nothing but a triumph of style, a groundless expression of taste.

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One of my favorite moments is when our exasperated host quizzes James van Sweden, a pioneer in naturalistic planting, as to why there’s not much garden culture in the U.S.
Mr. van Sweden, whose work succeeded in the sweltering heat of Washington, D.C., coolly eyes his theory-hungry British guest before dryly responding, “Because it’s hot.”

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But the provocative garden legacy of Madame Walska may appear more pioneering today than is historically accurate.
Lotusland’s originality may be by default, as other estate gardens of that era failed to financially survive.
Just about the time Lotusland was taking its present form in the early 1940s, a nearby cactus garden was being dismantled, victim of a fortune lost in the Great Depression.
From 1928 to 1942, Ysabel Wright made a garden in Montecito that in its brief lifespan held the world’s largest collection of cactus, with visitors like Albert Einstein.
The March-April 2015 Cactus and Succulent Journal has a wonderful piece on this garden by Catherine Phillips entitled “The Lost Cactus Garden of ‘Quien Sabe.’”
Both Lotusland and the Huntington Desert Garden procured plants from Quien Sabe as the collection was dispersed.
Ms. Phillips quotes a naturalist’s first impression of the garden after Ms. Wright had abandoned it and left for the East Coast, never to return:
Not all the breadth of the continent had prepared me for anything like this, and I stood lost in it,
staring at the rigid architectural beauty of the cacti and at the mountains that reared behind them turning blue with the dusk
.” — Donald Culross Peattie

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Ms. Phillips’ article on Quien Sabe describes “a particularly Californian ‘cactus-feminism’…a gendered response to the desert that ‘calls to women.'”

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Wright’s garden was built at the dawn of a gentle resistance to the exotic plant introductions and European garden designs that the city was famous for, inaugurating a move towards an advocacy of local flora (The Santa Barbara botanic Garden began in 1926). Through foreign introductions the cactus craze perpetuated the Santa Barbara tradition for botanical diversity, but at the same time the cactus enthusiasm suited a more ‘modern,’ more spontaneous genre with an affinity to a landscape that was not the Mediterranean but was California. Gardeners were looking to incorporate cactus harmoniously and naturally into design, without the crowded minutiae of the rock garden or the formality and artifice of earlier cactus garden models…” — “The Lost Cactus Garden of ‘Quien Sabe'”

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The Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are filled with the stories, if no longer the extant gardens, of women transformed by the climate into plant obsessives.
In his notes on Lotusland, Geoff Stein (aka “palmbob”) alludes to another extraordinary plantswoman, the “Palm Queen,” Pauleen Sullivan, who died in 2012:
(“One of my favorite palm people, Pauleen Sullivan, a leader in her own field of palm collecting and growing in California, was approached by Madame Walska in the late 1970s,
offering to buy many of Pauleen’s favorite palms for Lotusland.
Pauleen refused, of course (another stubborn plant personality), sending Madame Walska off in disbelief, as she had offered Pauleen a substantial amount of money
.”)

CSSA road trip June 2015

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Enormous Quiver Tree, Aloidendron dichotoma, and cycads in a Fallbrook, California private garden

It’s so true that passion bestows courage on the meek. A passion for plants put me on a bus one early Wednesday last June, a bus filled with cactus and succulent writers, explorers, and growers. The professional, the erudite, the specialists…and me. And they were all the best of friends, boisterously catching up on gossipy news. Queuing up behind name tags I knew from books and articles, it was all I could do to stifle a strong urge to flee. We were boarding a field trip bus leaving Pitzer College in Claremont, California, site of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America’s week-long Biennial Convention. The convention was comprised of all-day lectures, plant sales, dinners, and each day had its own price tag, including very affordable accommodations to stay the entire week in dormitories at the college. The portion I absolutely did not want to miss was this one day of touring private gardens. Other field trip choices were the Huntington and Lotusland, but it was the rare access to private gardens that had me resolutely putting one nervous foot in front of the other down that seemingly endless bus aisle until I found an open seat at the back of the bus. Not long after, a charming cylindropuntia expert, Vonn Watkins, took the empty seat next to mine and regaled me with stories the entire trip, including an account of a recent donation to the Huntington of a priceless cycad collection (probably Loran Whitelock’s, see here) and how Debra Lee Baldwin was booed in Tucson when she dissed cholla during a lecture there. (Debra tells that story here.) Plant people are the nicest people. We had a fabulous time.

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Our itinerary was a mystery. First stop was just a few minutes away from the college, the Claremont garden of Rico Leon. Unfortunately, I neglected to take photos, but standout plants for me included Aloe secundiflora, just building up another bloom truss. Rico says it blooms three times a year for him. A young tree aloe, Aloidendron pillansii, with its curious hammerhead-like leaves, also had me pestering Rico for an ID. This tree aloe is also known as the Giant Quiver Tree or the Bastard Quiver Tree, to distinguish it from the real-deal Quiver Tree, Aloidendron dichotoma. It was a fairly quick stop before we headed back onto the bus to visit what I assumed would be another local garden. Instead the bus left Claremont and the San Gabriel Mountain foothills and headed 40 miles south, in heavy commuter traffic, to Orange Coast College. I thought heading to Orange County was a pretty bold move, considering the traffic, but that wasn’t to be as far south as we’d go that day.
After a tour of the horticultural department and lunch at the college, we headed south again, this time to San Diego, where we toured two private gardens.
Every stop on the tour was shrouded in secrecy, and the last leg to San Diego of approximately 70 miles was a slog through heavy traffic.
We didn’t get back to Claremont until 8 p.m.

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The photos on this post are from the last stop of the day, at a private garden in Fallbrook that I was later told holds the U.S.’s second largest collection of blue cycads.
(Cycads are among the most endangered plants in the world. The most commonly seen is the sago palm, Cycas revoluta.)
Whether due to the long drive, the heat, the suspense, or all three, we stumbled out of the bus somewhat shell-shocked into this remarkable garden thick with cycads and huge stands of cactus planted in the 1960s. I overheard a lot of sotto voce whispering, “Whose garden is this, anyway?” Not a lot of information was given about the owner, who was introduced to us briefly at the beginning of the tour, first name only, and then we were let loose to roam the paths at will.

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I did bump into the owner later in the tour and found him very friendly.
I’m not sure when he acquired the garden, but he did say that the mature plantings were the work of the original owner in the 1960s, and he has continued to add to them.
With such rare cycads in the collection, details are understandably kept sketchy, but at least it was open to tour on a warm day in June.

CSSA 2015 Biennial Convention, June 14-19, 2015

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agave at South Coast Botanic Garden, a former open pit mine for diatomite extraction, then landfill, now botanic garden

I should probably split this glut of information into several posts, but if I don’t sit down right now and do it, the churning river of obligations that is my life at the moment will whisk me away again.
And there I’ll be, bobbing out of sight, heading for tumbling rapids and waterfalls unknown, while important, time-sensitive information goes unmentioned.

So here’s the really important news, conveniently placed at the top of what may turn into a very long post:

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America/CSSA is holding its 2015 biennial convention in Claremont, California, at Pitzer College, June 14-19.
There hasn’t been a convention in my hometown Los Angeles since 2001, so I’m looking at this as basically a gift from the CSSA to me. (Thank you so much!)
Since 2000, the grounds of Pitzer College have been in the capable hands of Joe Clements, who formerly headed the desert garden at the Huntington.
So, needless to say, the surroundings for the convention will be extraordinary. (You can read Nan Sterman’s article on Pitzer for Pacific Horticulture here.)

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notes from the CSSA plant sale at the Huntington June 28-29, 2014

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Aloe cameronii from the Cactus & Succulent Society of America show and sale at the Huntington this weekend.
An aloe famous for the deep coloring of is leaves, which requires harsh treatment to maintain, full sun and minimal water. I can do harsh no problem.
A variegated Agave leopoldii and Hechtia glauca also made the cut.

The sale is a small affair this year, possibly due to the fact that the Huntington itself is in a state of major upheaval as it works on the new Education and Visitor Center and other projects. The main entry and plaza is shrouded in construction fencing, and an ad hoc, tented entry has been fashioned. Something else new was the requirement to purchase admission to the Huntington to attend the plant sale. In the past, the parking lot plant sale could be attended free. I usually spring for the admission ticket anyway, and today I was grateful for the nudge because the desert garden conservatory was open. I unfailingly visit on the days it’s closed, which is more often than not. I think the sign said it’s only open on Saturdays now, but call to check if it’s a make-or-break reason for visiting.


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In the desert garden, there was lots of Agave bracteosa in bloom.

For the cactus lovers, join me in the steamy conservatory after the jump.

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Echeveria agavoides ‘Ebony’

Seen at the 2013 Inter-City Cactus & Succulent Show held at the Los Angeles County Arboretum over the weekend.

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Once again, on the show table, not the sales table. Echeveria agavoides ‘Ebony,’ intensely desirable and chronically unavailable. Is it going to take a Kickstarter campaign to get this propagated and into general circulation?

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Another arresting sight at the show was Boophone disticha.

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A South African bulb with a spectacular bloom that I covet more for those seductively twisted leaves. I brought a small one home from the sales tables.

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The sea squill, Urginea maritima. Being a mile from the ocean, I doubt I could go far wrong in making a garden just with plants that included the descriptor “maritima” or “maritimum.” Sturdy plants like Crithmum maritimum and the sea kale that filled Derek Jarman’s garden, Crambe maritima. I’d love to try the sea squill in the gravel garden, but it’s really not large enough an area to hold sufficient numbers of these massive bulbs for a good effect. Anyway, the bulbs are pricey. None for sale that I saw at the show.

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The sea squill with adjacent boophone leaves. By the time the sea squill blooms late summer, its leaves have died down.

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The arboretum’s unofficial mascot, its image found on coffee cups for sale in the gift shop. He hung out with me while I admired a hedge of Grevillea ‘Moonlight.’
The national bird of India seems to feel right at home in the intense summer heat of the San Gabriel Valley.

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I’ve decided that Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ has to be my next big shrub purchase. Tolerates pruning? Check. Attracts wildlife? Check. Low water needs? And check.

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Stunningly beautiful? Double check.


plant crushes

New plant crushes developed since visiting the Huntington Botanical Gardens on Saturday.

For frost-free zones 10-11, from Mexico, South America, Jatropha multifida. Easy from seed, fast growing, drought tolerant shrub or small tree. Spectacular coral flowers give it the common name Coral Tree. Like two others in the Euphorbiaceae, Euphorbia cotinifolia and the manihots, it might be worth trying even where tender as a summer tropical. Furcraea as a backdrop is a nice touch too. I saw this large specimen in the Desert Garden greenhouse after I’d already passed up a small rooted cutting on the sale tables at the CCSA plant sale at the Huntington over the weekend.


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Also in the Desert Garden greenhouse was this mesmerizing, Medusa’s-head of a tillandsia, maybe T. xerographica.

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Agave ‘Snow Glow,’ white-margined, variegated form of Agave ‘Blue Glow,’ the wildly successful hybrid of Agave attenuata and Agave ocahui.
A little over my budget though. Gratifying in a perverse way to see jacaranda bloom debris trapped on many of the spines and leaves of the plants for sale. Just like home.

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I was surprised and thrilled to find so many cool pelargoniums at the show, like this caffrum hybrid ‘Diana,’ whose flowers remind me of a lewisia.

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For stunning photos of a mature plant in bloom, go here.

Not too sure how I feel about this variegated opuntia, and so far I haven’t met a variegated plant yet I didn’t like.

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Temps weren’t probably much over 90 degrees at the Huntington on Saturday, but by noon I was wilting, dissolving.

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Sending out heartfelt sympathy to those suffering through the recent heat wave and power outages in the Eastern U.S.

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Friday clippings 6/29/12

Lobelia tupa from Chile is blooming for the first time in my garden, thereby making everything right again with the world. Long time coming, Ms. Tupa. The color on the lobelia is deeper than salmon but slightly less intense than tomato red. Pure and unmuddied. Don’t crowd her and give her lots of compost. 4 feet tall now but still a young plant. Seems to be a late-summer bloomer everywhere else in her favored digs of zone 8 and warmer.


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I had an enormous Agave bovicornuta growing here last year. Big mistake, for both me and the agave, whose leaves were spotting brown from the relatively higher levels of irrigation in the back garden, while my forearms were spotting red from the frequent piercings from its formidable spines. Never should have been planted in a part of the garden I change up so often. Its rapid speed of growth did catch me off guard. For old time’s sake, a photo of the agave from last year. Was that cowhorn agave purdy.

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Petunia integrifolia axillaris (“Wild White Petunia”) has started to reseed about, which is always the game plan. Tough and fragrant.
The mother-ship plant came from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.

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Shrubby Teucrium betonicum, also from Annie’s, looks promising but would probably appreciate being moved out of the tough-love gravel garden.

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The rolling tool cart is serving as a summer conservatory, changed out frequently with the potted plant du jour.

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Moving the Lepismium cruciforme here into full sun will deepen its reddish coloration. I’m waiting for this trailing, epiphytic cactus from Argentina and Brazil to gain some heft and length before moving it to a hanging container. All those tiles I seem to accumulate make great pot trivets, and the glass interrupters are useful for holding down tablecloths in a breeze. Finding sensible purposes for irrational magpie acquisitions is so satisfying. Still haven’t identified the sedum in the foreground on the right.

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The stacked-leaf succulent is Portulaca molokiniensis from Hawaii, which shatters my childishly cliche notions about Hawaii’s plant life as one vast Rousseau’s jungle. I may need to take up my brother’s invitation for a visit one of these days.

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Our early morning marine layer, aka the June Gloom, which I find anything but gloomy, is almost over. Dahlias just beginning.
In addition to ‘Chat Noir,’ I planted a couple other dahlias, for a grand total of three this year. They’re a tricky plant to fit into a tiny garden along with the other plants I enjoy growing, so three is really pushing it. Keeping them in pots in the garden border makes it easy to dial in their water and compost needs. Even with these maneuvers, I may end up moving them to my community vegetable plot since their needs are so similar to vegetables.

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I mentioned my infatuation with expanded steel in a recent post, seen here in a little table I’ve had for some years.
If you can’t stop yourself from placing potted plants on outdoor tables, even to the point of ruining them, this is the way to go.
Containers drain right through the fretwork.

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Southern California is a graveyard of machine shop detritus like these mysterious former agents of industry.

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Time for another good prowl through the salvage yards. And the CSSA Annual Show & Sale at Huntington Botanical Gardens this weekend. All on just two days, cheated out of a long weekend by the 4th orphaned in the middle of next week.

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Another entry from the Agaves I Have Loved and Lost department, this one taken in June last year of my now-departed Agave guadalajarana. Maybe I’ll find another one at the CSSA sale.

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Plant Societies

Why has it taken me so long to check out local plant societies? I’ve been a member of the various conservancies, The Mediterranean Garden Society, but membership was mostly in a passive sense, as a means to attend tours and lectures. There might be a small fear of compulsory meetings, which seem to always be held a good 40 miles away, in which case the will to attend usually flags on meeting day. But in the past month, as I checked out Cactus and Succulent Society of America-sponsored plant sales in San Diego, Los Angeles, Pasadena, and attended a meeting of my local Long Beach Cactus Club (oldest cactus club in the U.S.!), it’s become apparent that there’s nothing to fear and a huge amount of information (and plants!) to be gained.

In exchange for creating and maintaining a cactus and succulent garden on site, The Long Beach Cactus Club is allowed to hold its meetings at the Dominguez Rancho Adobe, a California State Historic Landmark. The old rancho is also home to a seminary of the Claretian order, which means the grounds are intensely private and quiet, allowing the thick adobe walls to work their magic in evoking Old California.

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It hadn’t occurred to me how insular a plant society might be. If it had, I would never have had the nerve to attend alone. I strode into the newer outbuilding where the talk was taking place and then froze up just across the doorway threshold, instantly realizing I was in the company of people who had been friends for many years. Once the group recovered from the palpable shock of a new face in their midst, I was greeted very warmly and, as a guest, was invited to choose a free plant from a little table. I kept that bright orange-leaved aloe at the foot of my chair the entire meeting. Everyone is allowed to select a free plant, and scanning the room I noted that most of the other selections were cacti. At this stage I’m more interested in succulents in a landscape and garden setting, which was one of my biggest reservations about cactus clubs, that somehow plants would be reduced to a hobbyist pursuit. What I found at the meeting was a comprehensive cultural, scientific and historical approach to the plants that quieted any such misgivings. Woody Minnich gave a talk on a recent plant-exploring trip to Peru. Exquisite photos of Machu Picchu, Cuzco, the Nazca plains from a four-seater plane. Be still my anthropology-loving heart! I was riveted to the folding chair. Apart from his authoritative knowledge of the plants, Mr. Minnich’s talk reflected his catholic interests in the people of Peru, the food, culture, geology, and he’s simply a wonderful photographer. He speaks at cactus and succulent groups all over the world. If his name pops up as a speaker at a society near you, I strongly urge you to attend. He just might be presenting a talk on his recent trip to Namibia.

I bumped into Mr. Minnich again at the Cactus & Succulent Society of America’s sale at the Huntington Botanical Gardens this past weekend and told him again how much I’d enjoyed his talk. And then I got busy checking out the plants. And, yes, I succumbed and bought one of the specialty pots offered for sale at these shows. (This one is from Mark Muradian. Unfortunately, I lost my little notebook at the plant sale, and Mark didn’t have a business card, so I don’t have contact info, but he does sell through ebay.)

Lucky day to bag the elusive Agave americana var. striata. I asked the vendor if the difficulty in finding this agave is due to it possibly being less vigorous, offsetting less, and (fingers crossed) thereby being a a smaller, more manageable A. americana, and he said not at all, that it grows as big and pups just as furiously as the species. Still couldn’t pass it up.

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I also brought home Sedum confusum, Crassula rupestris, Agave guiengola ‘Creme Brulee,’ Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue,’ and an Agave utahensis which I gave away as a hostess gift last night.

More examples of pots by Mark Muradian

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The mother of all cactus and succulent shows is coming up August 13th and 14th at the Los Angeles Arboretum, The Inter-City Cactus Show & Sale. Not one to miss.

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My So-Called Spiral Aloe

You can tell by the leaf litter that this guy is in the ground now, not in a pot anymore. In zone 10, planting in the ground is an option, since there’s no fear of frost damage.


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But there are other enemies besides frost. This aloe is trickier than most other aloes I grow. Let’s further refine that to trickiest by a landslide.

The only real problem I’ve encountered with aloes is the inescapable fact that many of the beauties in the genus grow large and my garden is small. But Aloe polyphylla is exacting in its requirements. It wants a bit more moisture but perfect drainage. I moved the aloe out of a pot because you just can’t forget to water him, unlike most other succulents I grow which simply “pull in their horns” to deal with the occasional missed drink. In zone 10, Aloe polyphylla is sensitive to the cold, heavy soil of winter, and in my amended clay the entire stemless plant has been known to slough off like a cheap toupee by spring. I have planted this aloe at a slight angle, which seems to have been the key to getting it through this fairly rainy winter season. Shade from afternoon sun is also appreciated. That lovely celadon green of its leaves will tip burn in full sun.

So it’s off to a good start this spring. (With such touchy plants, it’s OK to consider bare survival a good start.) There remains the small problem of a failure to spiral. I’ve yet to have an Aloe polyphylla spiral for me. A possible theory I invented to ease the disappointment is that rampant tissue culture of this aloe is somehow at the root of the problem. As fun as it is to make up wild theories, the sober facts can be found on the website of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, where it advises that “plants must reach a diameter of at least 8-12″ before they begin to spiral — and they may spiral either left or right — and amass about 90 leaves in order to support production of the large bloomstalk.” Mine currently measures 8 inches across, and I know I’ve had a nonspiraling plant well over a foot in diameter before, but no point getting cranky with the experts (or even a tiny bit jealous that they’re probably made absolutely dizzy by their spiral aloes.) And, honestly, even when it’s not spiraling, it is still a beautiful plant.

This used to be a hideously expensive aloe to buy because of its rarity in the wild, but the past few years I’ve been able to find inexpensive replacements now that propagation by tissue culture has been such a success. Here’s a photo from San Marcos Growers of the aloe in all its spiraling glory, just in case mine remains, for whatever reason, steadfast in its failure to spiral.