by Bruce Brethauer
My first encounter with the Fan Aloe dates back to 1993 when I visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek California, and it made quite a lasting impression. This species is arguably the most recognizable of all of the aloes, with distinctive fan-like clusters of leaves produced in two opposite ranks at the ends of thick, semi-woody, branching stems. The leaves are tightly clustered at the tips of the branches, with each branch producing one to two dozen leaves or so. The leaves are flattened, long, and barely tapered, ending abruptly in a rounded tip; the leaf margins are minutely toothed, but are otherwise completely smooth. The leaves are dusted with a thin waxy "bloom" which gives them an attractive, frosted green, blue green, to grey-green coloration. In strong light, the leaf margins may take on a pinkish blush. The leaves may grow to just over a foot in length, and to just under 2 inches wide at their widest, but are usually smaller - especially in younger plants. The inflorescence of this species is an un-branched raceme bearing up to about 30 nodding, 2-inch scarlet flowers each. Each fan produces, at most, a single inflorescence each flowering season. Reports vary on the flowering period for this species, with some growers reporting spring flowers, and others reporting fall flowers. This species eventually grows to a the size of a large shrub, ultimately growing to about 8 to15 feet in height, with short, chunky branches - which in older plants takes on a distinctly bonsai-like appearance. A well grown mature plant is quite a sight! After many years of admiring this plant from afar, I recently decided to take the plunge, and purchase it on one of those rare opportunities when it was became available from the Glasshouse Works.
The Fan Aloe originates from the western Cape region in South Africa, frequently growing near streambeds, etc., where moisture may be a bit more abundant. It grows on acidic, sandy soils, often in association with proteas, and other shrubby members of the heath family. It occurs in regions with winter rainfall, and are probably winter growers in habitat; but from reports of growers online, it appears that this plant can be opportunistic, growing whenever conditions are favorable. Even so, plants in cultivation should be frequently watered in the fall and spring, and should be given less water during the summer months. Unlike many other succulents, this species should not be kept completely dry in the winter, but should be watered at least enough to prevent leaf and root loss. For those growers who can provide very brightly lit growing areas through the winter months (such as a Florida room or a greenhouse), this species may benefit from regular watering at this time to facilitate its natural growing cycle. If you are unable to provide such bright light at this time, it may be beneficial to curtail water a bit in the winter to prevent any etioliated growth caused by plants growing in inadequate light.
In regions of the world which are frost free, or nearly so, this species is sometimes grown as a garden ornamental. Growers in California and Arizona report that the fan aloe will survive temperatures to as low as about 24 degrees Fahrenheit, but recommend that plants should be protected from frost as much as possible. It also has some difficulty with the extreme summer temperatures of Phoenix and Tucson Arizona, where this species may require shading through the summer months, but in regions where summer temperatures are a bit more moderate, this species will take full sun. In cooler regions, where this plant will not survive winter temperatures, it is best to grow this species as a potted plant, which ideally, should be moved outdoors during the warmer months to benefit from exposure to bright light, and rains, and moved back indoors when temperatures approach freezing. Growers recommend that this plant should be given a slightly acidic potting medium - in the range of pH of 5.5-6.5. By all accounts, this is a slow growing species, so it will not quickly outgrow its allotted space, but with time, it will (slowly but surely) branch and re-branch, eventually growing into a good sized specimen plant requiring a large pot or planter. But the process will take many years (probably several decades), so this will not be a concern for many years.
The distinctive fan-like leaf clusters sets this species apart. Even at a very small size (either a seedling, or a rooted cutting of a single fan) this is a very attractive plant. It is also rumored that it will flower at this small size. Sadly, in this part of the country, this is not an easy plant to come by: very few regional mail order nurseries carry this plant, and I have never seen it offered at any of the local nurseries. Most of the people who grow this plant are confined to the southwest, and possibly Florida and Hawaii; areas in which this plant may be grown as a garden perennial. Elsewhere, it is seldom grown as a houseplant, even though its distinctive and attractive growth, coupled with its relative ease of care would lend it to the role of a houseplant. Perhaps in time this will become more widely available. If you ever manage to encounter this plant, give it a try, you will be happy that you did.