When I was young, my mother (and all the other mothers on our block) kept a pot of aloe vera on the back porch. Every time I got a sun burn, my mom would go outside and snap a couple of leaves off of her plant and use the cool, viscous fluid that oozed out of the leaves to sooth the burn. I think that since she used aloe vera as a medicine, I never really learned to think of it as an ornamental.
This past Spring Break, I discovered (in a very big way) that aloe vera is as pretty as it is “useful”. Sally and I spent her time off exploring Hilltop Gardens in Lyford, Texas. Hilltop Gardens is the only Botanical Garden in the Texas Valley. It is also home to the largest public collection of species aloes in the U.S. Hilltop Gardens sits on the oldest commercial aloe vera farm in the U.S. The company that owns the farm is the market leader in aloe production. Because of their success growing and transforming the aloe vera plant into a variety of health and beauty products, they wanted to build a beautiful place to showcase the beauty and variety of the plant family that has been so good to them.
The garden is under the direction of Paul Thornton. In addition to maintaining this beautiful space, Paul also had a hand in designing it. According to Paul, Hilltop Gardens has become “his dream job”. Paul was an excellent host and tour guide and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. He is a walking encyclopedia of aloe knowledge. One of the most interesting things that he shared with us was the fact that aloe vera is mentioned several times in the Bible. He also said that there are carvings of aloe in the Egyptian pyramids. According to Paul, “Aloe’s health benefits have been known and used for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians called it “the immortal plant” and they offered it as a gift to their deceased pharaohs over 6000 years ago”. Another thing that I found interesting was the fact that even though humans have been growing it and using it for 6000 years, there are no known wild populations of the plant. What we all know as aloe vera only lives in cultivation.
Aloe vera is a succulent. Because of this it thrives in environments like ours (Zones 8-11) that have limited or unpredictable water supplies. Aloe vera is a very tough plant that can adapt to a lot of soil types (as long as they are well draining). It is also fairly resistant to most pests. Aphids can attack it but that usually only happens when the plants are grown too close together. If grown properly, aloe vera will produce beautiful, tall flower spikes.
When growing succulents in pots, you should allow the soil to dry out between each watering. This makes aloe an easy choice for those of us that live in places where high summer temperatures make it almost impossible to keep the soil in our outdoor pots moist. Aloe reproduces readily. This is another great reason to try some this year. Aloe vera will quickly produce lots of “pups” or off-shoots. These pups can be used to make more potted plants or you can transplant them directly into your flower beds. They will quickly grow into a large, showy, upright mass of thick, spikey leaves.
If you are looking for something to do that is a little out of the ordinary, go to their website and plan a visit. As part of the gardens, Hilltop offers onsite bed and breakfast accommodations in a Spanish style mansion. Sally and I stayed there and we were very impressed with the lovely décor, the heated pool and the excellent service. If you have ever thought of spending a few days exploring the Texas/Mexico border, then Hilltop Gardens is the perfect place to settle while you enjoy all of the vibrant cultural offerings of the Rio Grande valley.