by Bruce Brethauer
The aloes are a remarkably diverse group of old world succulents, mostly native to Africa, and Madagascar, but also present in Socotra, and the Arabian peninsula. Most people are familiar with Aloe vera, the so-called "Burn Plant", famous for its soothing properties in the treatment of minor burns and skin abrasions, but few persons are aware of the remarkable number of aloe species (there are over 400 species) ranging in size from the tree-like Aloe dichotoma, and A. barberae to more or less shrubby species producing a large rosette of succulent leaves on top of short trunks, to the more miniature species, growing from a few inches tall to perhaps 3 feet in height. These smaller species have been widely grown as house plants, and in suitable climates, as attractive drought tolerant groundcovers and accents in the xeric garden. Virtually all of the aloe species are leaf succulents, producing a rosette of succulent leaves on a stem which may me elongated, or extremely truncated, depending upon the species and variety. The leaves may be of a uniform green, or in many species, can be attractively patterned with spots and splotches of contrasting dark and light green, and creamy whites; many species also possess interestingly toothed leaf margins. Most of the aloes produce large, and attractive displays of colorful tubular flowers on spikes and branching racemes.
One of the gems of the truly miniature aloes is Aloe descoingsii, which is widely regarded as the smallest aloe, with tiny rosettes, measuring to only about 2 inches across, and with triangular very succulent leaves, with wide bases, tapering abruptly to a point. In some clones, the leaf surface is very nearly flat, but in many individuals, the leaf margins are raised, to produce a cupped leaf surface. The leaf margins bear minute teeth along their length. All surfaces of the leaves are attractively marked with spots of paler green and greenish white. The stems are extremely compact, rosettes seldom stand taller than 2 inches. This species will soon cluster to produce a compact plant with many individual stems, and may eventually clump to produce clusters containing hundreds of individual stems and measuring over 12 inches in diameter.
This species produces a very thin upright flower scape, which may produce up to about 15 bright orange-red, urn shaped flowers, each measuring about 5 millimeters long.
Aloe descoingsii is native to Madagascar, being found only on very steep limestone slopes. It is a remarkably rare plant in habitat, being considered critically endangered. Paradoxically, this species has proven to be remarkably easy to grow and propagate in cultivation, and is becoming readily available, even to the point of being occasionally available in the succulent selection at the nurseries of some "big box" garden centers and home improvement stores. It responds well to my general guidelines for growing succulents, with a few minor modifications. First of all, in habitat, this species is frequently shaded by grasses or other vegetation, so it is tolerant of somewhat shaded conditions - so it may be a good choice for growers who cannot provide the intensely bright conditions favored by some desert dwelling succulents. Even so, this plant grows best when it is provided with very bright light, and it really benefits when grown outdoors through the warm months of spring, summer, and early fall. Grown outdoors, I have kept my plant in both dapple shade and full daylight - it suffers no ill effect here in Ohio from full exposure to the sun (once it has been acclimatized), but in Florida, and the desert regions of the American Southwest, it may benefit from a partially shaded location. As with most of the Madagascar natives, this plant prefers warm growing conditions: During its growing season, it prefers temperatures from the upper 70's to the lower 90's. During its dormancy, most growers indicate that it should be kept above 50 degrees Fahrenheit for best health, although it can survive brief periods of very cold conditions during its dormancy, - some growers indicate that it may even survive a few degrees of frost.
This plant has a reputation of being a slow grower - a reputation which it doesn't entirely deserve. While it may be a slower growing plant than the such fast growing succulents as prickly pears, sedum, and delospermas, it is not nearly as slow growing as plants which I regard as the real tortoises of the succulent world (Astrophytum, Ariocarpus, and the varieties of Haworthia vicosa). While it may never grow to be a tall plant, in time it will cluster, and will eventually grow to fill a 6, 8 or even a 10 or 12 inch pot. But it is easy to maintain this species at a very small size, by growing it in small pots, and dividing as necessary when repotting - so this plant would be an excellent choice for growers with very limited space. It is such an attractive plant when grown all by itself, but it is a great low growing plant which works well in mixed succulent dish gardens, and it can be incorporated in the "understory" of a much larger plant as a sort of ground cover. In my experience, Aloe descoingsii has proven to be a bit of an opportunistic bloomer, flowering whenever conditions are favorable - usually flowering for me two or thee times in summer, and occasionally at other times of the year (it is February as I am writing this, and my plant - growing under lights set on a 12 hour timer, is presently in bud). While the individual flowers are small, they are quite colorful and showy, providing moments of serendipity whenever they appear.
To date, I have never had problems of insect infestations with this plant, but the grower should nevertheless keep an eye out for scale, mealy bugs, and spider mites. The densely packed foliage provides many hiding places for these pests, and once established, they can be especially hard to eradicate. Preventative measures, and maintaining conditions that keep your plants healthy and growing strong will go a long way to prevent any problems with pests and disease. Should an infestation become evident, I first recommend physically removing as many of the pests as possible, (a strong stream of water can dislodge the majority of spider mites from a plant) and then treat the plant with an insecticidal soap - if these measures don't work, stronger measures in the form of a systemic insecticide may be necessary. As with any insecticide (including the insecticidal soaps), always read the and follow the instructions carefully - all pesticides should be treated with respect, many are not really suitable for use with indoor plants, and many can be dangerous to wildlife, pets and people.
Aloe descoingsii is one of the gems of the aloes, producing spreading mats of miniature rosettes, its leaves attractively marked with paler dots and splotches. I have found it to be a very forgiving plant, tolerating somewhat reduced lighting, and benign neglect. I have found it to be easy to flower - usually producing blooms several times each year, with small, but vibrantly colored blooms - making this a real stand out. It is a great plant to include in collections of Haworthias and Gasterias, and is a great plant for dish gardens as well. Its small size makes it ideal for growers with limited spaces, and is a great plant for people looking for the next aloe (after growing Aloe vera).
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