Spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) is instantly recognizable, and nothing compares to its symmetrical, evenly-spaced rosette of thick, succulent leaves.
The dark gray-green leaves form a tight spiral that might grow clockwise or counter-clockwise in five rows. The margins are lined with sharp teeth and end with a purplish-brown, sharp tip. In the right conditions, yellow, salmon, pink, or red flowers will emerge on tall stalks from between the leaf rows (or ranks). A plant can have up to 150 leaves and grows about two feet wide and a foot tall.
This plant is difficult to find and highly sought after for several reasons. First, its unusual growth makes it a unique addition to the home. Second, it’s difficult to find and grow. If you do find it, it’s usually expensive to purchase.
But it’s worth the effort if you appreciate its unique appearance.
- Genus: Aloe
- Species: polyphylla
- Native To: Lesotho and South Africa
- Sun Exposure: Typically bright indirect or diffused light
- Soil Preference: Well-draining loam or bark and moss
- Soil pH: Acidic, neutral, alkaline
- Blossom Color: yellow, salmon, pink, or red
- Growing Zones: 10-12
- Toxicity: Mildly toxic if ingested
Caring for Spiral Aloe:
This plant is protected in its native Lesotho, with unconfirmed reports that it has also appeared indigenously in a few areas in South Africa. It grows on craggy rock faces and mountain slopes. It’s illegal to harvest either the plant or the seeds and illegal to take them out of the country. This plant is endangered in its native range.
That’s why it’s important to only purchase this plant from reputable sellers that obtain their seeds or live plants from legal sources.
Don’t feel bad if yours doesn’t form blossoms. They rarely bloom outdoors, and indoor blossoms are even more rare. While outdoor plants typically bloom in spring or early summer, indoor plants might bloom at any time.
Incidentally, the flower of this plant is the national flower of Lesotho.
You don’t need to worry when your young plant doesn’t spiral at first. That’s normal. They don’t start to form the spiral shape until they’re a bit older and at least eight inches in diameter.
Spiral aloe is adaptable to a wide range of light exposure. It will grow fine in bright, indirect light, but it will form a tighter, more attractive rosette when grown in bright, direct light for at least six hours per day.
The best way to accomplish this is to place the plant in or within a few feet of a west or south-facing window where sunlight lands on the leaves for at least six hours. If you can’t provide that much natural light, a supplemental light will work well.
Soil and Containers
If you consider the type of environment that this plant grows in naturally, you’ll understand why you need to select the growing mix carefully. These plants grow in rocky areas that are typically sloped, meaning that very little water sits against the roots.
You want to recreate this by using a cactus soil. Cactus soil is typically composed of sand, grit, gravel, pumice, or perlite, which effectively recreates the natural soil.
Don’t use a standard potting mix, or you will likely cause the roots to rot, no matter how carefully you water.
Be sure to choose a container with drainage. An unglazed clay material or terra cotta is best, since these allow water to evaporate more quickly than glazed or plastic pots.
Choose a container about a foot in diameter for a mature plant and one-half to two-thirds the diameter of the plant’s leaves for younger plants. A pot that is wider than it is tall is ideal for supporting the weight of the mature plant.
Too large of a pot promotes overwatering, so use the right size of pot, and plan on upgrading the size as the plant matures rather than placing it in a full-sized pot straight away.
Speaking of watering, spiral aloe won’t tolerate excess water at all. If water sits against the roots for any length of time, the risk of root rot and plant death is extremely high. On the other hand, the thick, succulent leaves store lots of water for the plant to tap into when other water isn’t available. That means they can handle drought much better than too much water.
Since they tend to grow on slopes, the water that they receive passes through the root system rapidly and doesn’t linger.
When you water, wait for the soil to be completely dry all the way through for at least an entire day. In the winter, during the dormant season, you’ll need to water much less often, both because the water will evaporate more slowly and also because the plant is dormant.
When it’s time, slowly add the water, testing the soil frequently with your finger. You want the water to penetrate three to four inches deep and feel moist but not wet.
If the soil feels soggy or wet deeper than four inches, stop watering immediately. Overwatering one time won’t kill your plant, but repeated overwatering will.
If you have an extremely humid home above 70% relative humidity, you might want to use a dehumidifier.
Feeding and Maintenance
Not only does spiral aloe not require feeding, but feeding your plants can actually harm them. Remember, these plants grow in depleted, rocky soil. They aren’t accustomed to nutrient-rich soil.
If your soil becomes hydrophobic, meaning that the water runs off the surface and down the sides of the pot, rather than soaking into the roots, you will need to replace the soil. The same applies if the soil becomes compacted and hard.
Remember, these plants need loose, fast-draining soil.
You should also remove any leaves that turn yellow or brown, because these act as a drain on the plant.
Spiral aloes are difficult to propagate, which is part of the reason they’re so rare and expensive to purchase. Most aloes develop what are called pups or offsets. When an aloe plant forms offsets, you can remove these and plant them in their own separate container.
Spiral aloe doesn’t form offsets, so you can’t reproduce it as do most other aloes. That’s another reason that it’s expensive to purchase and difficult to find.
Instead, this plant reproduces itself via seeds. After the flowers form and fade, seedpods develop. Inside these seed pods are small seeds. You can harvest these for planting. Alternatively, you can find seeds on the market, but make sure that you’re obtaining them from a reputable seller.
Unethical sellers might sell seeds that aren’t true spiral aloe or they might have seeds that are too old to germinate well. Others might obtain their seeds illegally by harvesting them from wild plants.
Once you have your seeds, fill a seed tray with succulent potting mix. Moisten the soil. Gently press the seeds into the soil, but don’t cover them. Once the seeds are in place, spray the seeds and soil with water.
Place the tray on a heat mat that will maintain a temperature between 70-85°F in an area with at least four hours of direct sunlight or supplemental lighting.
It might take several weeks, but the seeds should eventually germinate. While you wait, water the soil using a spray bottle whenever the surface dries out.
Once the seedlings are about six inches tall, gently dig them up using a spoon or small trowel and place them in individual pots. Remember, you don’t want to use a pot that’s too large. Find one that is about the same size as the width of the leaves. A pot that is wider than it is tall is ideal, since aloes have roots that grow wider than they do tall.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
The fact of the matter is that spiral aloes can be challenging to raise. You can do everything right, and your plant still might falter. Growers are working hard to breed plants that are sturdier and better adapted to life outside of Lesotho, but for now, you might need to prepare for your plant to survive only a few years.
That’s not to say that you can’t keep one alive for longer, but taking care not to overwater is crucial. Otherwise, the roots will rot, and the plant will die. Once root rot takes hold, it’s difficult to fix. If you suspect the roots are rotting, which typically appears first as yellow or brown leaves on the outside of the plant, remove the plant from its pot and discard the soil.
Clean out the pot with soapy water, trim off any dead, mushy, or black roots, and repot in fresh potting soil.
Watch out for pests like mealybugs, scale, and spider mites. These sap-sucking pests feed on the gel inside the plants and remove nutrients, stressing the plant. If you see mealybugs or scale, gently scrape them off with a butterknife. Spider mites can be dealt with using insecticidal soap.
Be sure to isolate your plant if it’s infested to prevent the pests from spreading.