How to Grow and Care for a Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla)
Aloe polyphylla, commonly know as Spiral Aloe, is a rare, stemless Aloe, noted for its stunning spiral shape. It is native to the Lesotho mountain peaks near South Africa, where it is now a protected species. It clings to rocky crevices where it grows in the high grassy, mountainous slopes. The plants are sometimes under snow in winter.
The sharp-edged thick leaves form a spiral, clockwise or anti-clockwise. They do not begin to spiral until they are between 8 and 12 inches (20 and 30 cm) in diameter. The Basotho people believe the direction of the spiral indicates the sex of the plant, but in fact, the flowers are actually bisexual. Plants have approximately 150 leaves each, which explains the name "polyphylla," "poly" means "many," and "phylla" is Greek for "leaves."
It can take a few years to reach maturity, but it is a fascinating plant at all stages of its growth cycle. After a few years, spikes of beautiful pink or red flowers may emerge, which, when pollinated, will produce hundreds of seeds. Plants usually bloom in spring and early summer.
Aloe polyphylla is the National flower of Lesotho.
Growing Conditions and General Care
Spiral Aloe is one of the most ornamental Aloes but extremely difficult to grow in cultivation. Plants that have been removed from their habitat usually do not survive for more than a few years. It is a criminal offense to remove plants or seeds of Spiral Aloe from the natural habitat or to buy plants from roadside vendors.
With proper care, Spiral Aloe can be cultivated successfully outside of its native habitat. It is a fast-growing plant that can reach full size in 5 or 6 years. If plants do not receive proper growing conditions will die despite all efforts.
It needs well-drained soil and grows best on a steep slope. It prefers light shade and does not like really high temperatures. Plants need to be protected from hot temperatures and do most growing in spring and fall. It might not thrive in consistently hot areas, especially if nights are also warm. Mature plants are said to handle 10 °F (-12 °C) as well as snow, although younger plants should be protected from hard freezes. Water moderately when in growth from spring to early fall and very sparingly when dormant. Apply a balanced liquid fertilizer 2 or 3 times in the growing season.
Spiral Aloe is great for beds and borders, rock gardens, slopes, succulent gardens, or Mediterranean gardens. It is great in decorative containers too.
If you are in a warm climate, you can grow the seeds outdoors. The rest of us will need to start them indoors with the addition of bottom heat of some kind. Keep the medium moderately moist either way in bright light and where temperatures are ideally 75 °F (23 °C).
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Care and Propagation Information
General Care for Aloe polyphylla “Spiral Aloe”
“Spiral Aloe” is a rare succulent, with rosettes formed by five rows of leaves. Each row contains between 15 and 30 sharp leaves, creating a rosette that can grow up to 1 foot (31 cm) across.
Aloe polyphylla blooms in the spring, with pink-orange flowers.
“Spiral Aloe” tends to need a bit less water than other succulents. It’s best to use the “soak and dry” method, and allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings.
Where to Plant
“Spiral Aloe” is not cold hardy until it is mature, so if you live in a zone that gets colder than 30° F (-1.1° C), it’s best to plant younger specimens in a container that can be brought indoors. It does well in full to partial sun.
Plant in an area of your garden that gets 6 hours of sunlight a day.
Pairs Well With
How to Propagate Aloe polyphylla “Spiral Aloe”
While you may think that you should be able to propagate Aloe from leaves, this is not the case, and you may find your leaves rotting. Instead, “Spiral Aloe” is propagated from offsets or seeds (difficult).
After several years of growth, “Spiral Aloe” will produce an offset. This can be separated from the main plant using a sterile knife.
Wear gloves and use care when removing the offset, as the leaves are sharp. After removal, clean the bottom of the plant, allow it to callous over, and plant in well-draining soil.
History and Name
Aloe polyphylla “Spiral Aloe” is used in African tribal medicine and magic. These plants are considered endangered in the wild.
Polyphylla comes from the Latin words ‘poly’ meaning many, and ‘phylla’ meaning leaves. It is also called Kroonaalwyn in Afrikaans, meaning “Crown Aloe.”
Common problems with Aloe polyphylla
Overwatering your Aloe polyphylla, or more to the point letting the soil stay wet rather than lightly moist for prolonged periods, can lead to root rot. Unless you check your plant regularly one of the first signs of root rot is brown, yellow, or squishy lower leaves.
To check whether the actual roots are rotten, remove your plant from the pot and carefully brush off any remaining soil. Roots that are brown or black and soft and mushy are rotten and need trimming off.
Allow the cut to dry before repot ting with fresh soil in a clean pot. Resume watering your plant, but much less frequently.
Mealybugs especially love humid conditions and can be found in the tightly packed leaves or in the crevices of stem junctions on Aloe polyphylla.
These tiny wingless insects produce a distinctive cotton-like mass on the plant’s surface. They feed on the plant’s sap by piecing their straw-like mouth into the foliage.
Use household insect spray, neem oil, detergent or soapy water to wash them away. Repeat regularly until the infestation subsides.
Scale are static shell-like parasites that sit on the underside of the leaves and feed on the plant sap. Infestations lead to the plant looking sick and wilted. You can treat Scale by using a diluted detergent or soapy water to wash them off.
Aloe Polyphylla Plant Care
Aloe Polyphylla Light Requirements
Aloe polyphylla thrive on plenty of bright light. In fact, they need full sun which equates to at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.
That said, depending on where you live, the afternoon sun may be a big too hot or harsh for it. The same is true for brutal summers.
This means that if you live in the southern part of the country or warm regions where the afternoon sun can get very intense, it is a good idea to keep the plant under partial shade.
On the other hand, if you live in a cooler region, then full sun is ideal.
Indoors, this makes an eastern exposure the best spot for the plant. It gets long hours of bright light here. And, it won’t have a problem with the gentle morning sun.
Western and southern exposures are likewise great provided that you observe how the afternoon sun is. You want to avoid overly hot and intense light as it will eventually damage the plant’s leaves.
Outdoors, bright shade is likewise a good idea, especially during the hottest times of the day.
Bottom line here is your spiral aloe needs lots of bright light. As long as it doesn’t get overly harsh for long periods of time, it will be happy. This exposure will allow it to grow at its best and produce its most vibrant leaves and flowers.
Spiral Aloe Temperature & Humidity
Aloe polyphylla grows best as an outdoor plant. It is less suited to growing indoors.
That said, it comes from South Africa. As such, it prefers warm weather. However, adult Spiral Aloe are somewhat (not totally) cold hardy. They can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit or so.
This means you have a little bit more leeway with them when it comes to colder temperatures at the end of the year.
However, be aware that this only applies to adult Aloe polyphylla. Immature plants are not able to tolerate freezing or cold temperatures. So, it is a good idea to give them extra care if grown outdoors when fall arrives.
Ideally, keep younger Spiral Aloe in containers to make it easy to bring them indoors.
As time passes, they will get acclimated to the point where they are be able to live outdoors on their own.
On the other hand, beware of overly hot conditions as well. As much as the plant enjoys warm, bright light, it cannot tolerate too much heat as well.
Needless to say keep it out of any condition where temperatures is above 95 degrees. Here, its thick leaves will flatten out and turn limp.
It can somewhat tolerate levels between 85 to 95 degrees, although you do need to watch how it responds. Ideally, keeping temperature between 70 to 85 degrees will keep the plant growing well.
As far as USDA hardiness zones go, the plant can does best between zones 10 and 12.
How Often to Water Aloe Polyphylla
Like other succulents, Aloe polyphylla have thick, fleshy leaves that store water. This makes it drought tolerant. However, do keep in mind that is needs less than other succulents.
In a sunny location, it will need more regular watering especially in the spring and summer. But, in a shaded location, it will need less water.
Be very mindful of water during the fall and winter when your Spiral Aloe will require even less water than it normally does.
As such, only water when the soil is dry to the touch. Ideally, wait for the top 1 to 2 inches to dry before watering. This will reduce the risk of overwatering, which can easily happen because the plant stores extra water in its foliage.
Soil for Aloe Polyphylla
Aloe polyphylla has long, thick roots. But, they do not go that deep. As such, it is essential to use well-draining soil.
It root system also does better in a wide shallow container as opposed to a deeper one where water can accumulate and sit for longer periods of time that may increase the risk of root rot.
This means your Spiral Aloe will prefer sandy or gravely soil over heavy clay soils that will retain moisture.
It is also one of the plants that will be able to do well in slopes, hillsides or banks where the slanted surface will allow water to run through it instead of just sit around the plant.
This kind of “fast draining” moisture prevents overwatering.
If you decide to grow it in a container, make sure the pot has drainage holes that will allow water to easily escape.
As for potting mix, you can use a combination of:
- 55% compost
- 35% perlite, pumice, coarse sand or vermiculate
- 10% horticultural grit
Aloe Polyphylla Fertilizer
Aloe polyphylla enjoy rich, fertile soil. As such, giving them loamy soil or that which has been amended with compost helps a lot.
If you grow your spiral Aloe is a container, it is a good idea to check whether the potting soil that comes with it has been pre-mixed with fertilizer. If it has figure out what kind and how long the plant food lasts. You can ask the nursery you got it from.
This will let you know when to start feeding the plant.
You do not want to feed it while it still has the pre-mixed dose in effect. This will “double up” the fertilizer which is not good for the plant, its roots of leaves.
That said, how much fertilizer you use will depend on how often you repot.
- If you repot annually, you can use a slow-release 6-month fertilizer. With it, you only need to apply once and you’re good to go till next season.
- On years your don’t repot, apply liquid fertilizer once every month during the growing season.
Pruning Spiral Aloe
Aloe polyphylla grows to about a foot tall and about 2 feet wide. As such, it isn’t the biggest plant. But, it does take up some space. And, because of its spiral configuration, the lower leaves are bigger.
Thus, when it comes to size and shape, you may get tempted to remove these especially once they start drying out or dying off.
But, never prune them or cut them off prematurely.
That’s because they serve a few functions. The most of important of which is to re-absorb water and nutrients. This allows the plant to produce more flowers and foliage.
The good news is, spiral aloe don’t need a lot of pruning. So, it is fairly low maintenance in this aspect.
But, if you grow it in a container, be aware that its size will eventually be a problem. Not only will you need a large pot, you’ll likewise likely need to prune its roots every year.
While the plant isn’t bothered by the root pruning, it does come out to be quite a bit of work.
Aloe Polyphylla Propagation
Aloe polyphylla is a bit trickier to propagate compared to other aloe varieties. As a result, the plant is rarer than other succulents. And, one reason you’ll likely need to go online to find them.
That’s because it cannot be propagated by leaf cuttings. Because of its large, thick leaves, you’d think that the spiral aloe would be straightforward to propagate via this method.
This means you’ll either need to rely on its offsets (the plant does produce pups) or propagating from seed.
How to Propagate Spiral Aloe from Offsets
Offsets would seem like the much easier way to propagate your Spiral Aloe. But, another reason why it has become rare is that it does not produce offsets (pups) that often.
And, you have to keep it happy for several years before it may be able to do so.
As such, it is kind of a hit-miss thing.
That said, if you’re fortunate to see your Aloe polyphylla produce offsets, you want to take full advantage of them.
Use a sterile knife to cut the offsets from the parent plant. Be careful as the leaves of the plant are quite sharp.
Then remove any loose dirt from them.
Leave the offsets in a warm, dry place to allow them to callous. This takes about a day or two.
Once they’ve calloused, place the offsets into containers with well-draining soil.
How to Propagate Spiral Aloe from Seeds
Because offsets are not a sure thing and leaf cuttings are out of the question, propagating from seed is the most effective way.
The good new is, it is easy to grow them from seed. And, you can purchase the seeds online easily.
So, all you need is a bit of patience and allow the seeds to germinate then grow into seedlings.
From there, you’ll be able to decide whether to transplant it outdoors or move them to a larger container.
How to Repot Aloe Polyphylla
If you keep the plant in a container, you’ll need to repot it at some time. This will depend on how big, deep or shallow the container is.
Your Aloe polyphylla has shallow roots. As such, it is best to keep it in a wide, shallow container. This will reduce the risk of overwatering which can happen with deeper plants as the ratio of soil to the plant’s roots is big.
Once the roots start showing out from under the container, it is time to repot the plant.
Because of its size (it will reach about 2 feet wide), containers will get harder to find as the plant’s size increases.
As such, in most cases, pruning its roots is needed. And, is done once a year along with repotting. This will allow you to keep the plant in its existing container.
Similarly, repotting annually also allows you to refresh the potting soil each time you do. This will let you use a 6-month slow-release fertilizer instead of having to feed it monthly during its growing season.
Spiral Aloe Toxicity
Keep the Aloe polyphylla away from young children, dogs and cats. The plant is toxic to both humans and animals. Thus, ingesting any part of the plant cause vomiting and other digestive distress.
Similarly, the leaves are sharps o you can hurt yourself. It is important to be careful when handling this plant as well.
That said, it is worth noting that in its native South Africa, the Spiral Aloe is revered for medicinal and magical qualities.
Pests and Diseases
Aloe polyphylla are prone to aphids and snout beetles. In order to prevent them from happening, it is important to keep the plant healthy. This includes proper drainage, watering and aeration.
Similarly, too much humidity or moisture increases the risk of fungal problems. Overwatering can cause root rot.
This means you always want to be mindful of watering and drainage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, Aloe polyphylla can be toxic for cats and dogs. This variety of succulent plant has been identified as potentially poisonous when ingested by animals on the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
If you have Aloe polyphylla in your garden, your pet may be in danger of getting ill once it comes in contact with the plant. Look out for signs of depression, vomiting, and gastrointestinal distress.
Aloe polyphylla is a high maintenance succulent plant. If proper conditions to support its growth are not achieved, Spiral Aloe can die.
There are 3 possible factors that could lead to the death of your Aloe polyphylla – overwatering, extreme cold, hot temperatures, and infestation.
Like all succulents, overwatering can lead to the plant’s roots rotting. Aloe polyphylla can survive long periods without water because its plump leaves have the ability to store water.
Make sure the tray under the pot of the plant has been cleared of excess water. Use well-draining soil that will allow air to circulate freely around the plant’s roots.
If you see any part of the plant developing a brownish color, cut it off right away with a sterilized knife. That could be a sign of rotting which can spread and infect the rest of the plant.
Exposure to Cold Temperatures
Aloe polyphylla is highly sensitive to cold temperatures especially when it hits below freezing point.
Under freezing conditions, the leaves can develop rot right away. The best solution is to transfer the succulent indoors and place it in an area with temperatures that do not go lower than 30° F (-1.1° C).
Exposure to Hot Temperatures and Dry Air
Aloe polyphylla can also rot when exposed to hot temperatures and dry air. In situations such as these, move the plant indoors and place it in a room where the temperatures do not go above 82 to 86° F (28 to 30° C).
It may take years but Spiral Aloe produces attractive salmon-pink flowers that measure 12-inches or 30cm in the spring or early summer. In rare occurrences, the succulent may bloom yellow-colored flowers.