The soap aloe is just one of those plants that stir up a passion in gardeners and plant aficionados across the country. It's known botanically as Aloe maculata, and at first glance, you would swear it is from Mexico but alas its home is over 9,000 miles away in South Africa.
I first fell in love with it when I would travel to the California Pack Trials and drive from San Diego to San Francisco. Then it seems 70-80 percent of the homes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas had it in the landscape. It is one of those plants that just seems to be at home in hot, arid, frost-free climates.
When I arrived in Savannah, I was surprised to see it flourishing in the sweltering heat and humidity. I was even more delighted to see that a bone-chilling 18 degrees had no lingering effect. It seems good drainage and sunlight are the two most important factors for it to thrive in the home landscape.
An internet search will suggest everything from zone 9 to 11 with an occasional suggestion to zone 8. All would be correct, and here in Savannah, we are indeed in zone 8b. Don't let those zones deter you from growing this incredible plant as it looks most exotic in containers which can be moved for protection during the winter.
You might be thinking an aloe is an aloe what is so special about this one. I would be the first to spout back what's not to like. The leaves are speckled and offer a wonderful contrasting texture in the landscape. But to be honest, it is the flowers that mesmerize me.
The foliage reaches around 18 inches tall and about 18 to 24 inches wide when mature. The plant produces spikes of flowers that can be from 24 to 36 inches tall and are red/orange. Here is what has amazed me this year. We have several here in the garden. I shot my first blooming photos in mid-April; we had blooms in May and in June. Now our soap aloe plants grown at the garden entrance are blooming in conjunction with the yellow flowered Esperanza.
The tall flower stalks are so eye-catching and appealing you'll want to pause for a closer look. But, you will find you are not the only visitor. The ruby-throated hummingbird, or whichever species you have, will beat you there and take their time feasting on every flower.
We have the soap aloe in our Mediterranean garden where it looks at home and at our entrance. But, it also does well in the modern or contemporary style garden, and it can seem a home with tropicals or partnered with cactus, agave, and rocks in the xeriscape.
As the name suggests the sap from the leaves will suds up as a soap substitute, but it is suggested to try sparingly as too much can cause it to be an irritant. To me, a plant producing a flower this gorgeous and bringing in hummingbirds is a winner.
Once you get yours, you'll notice pups being formed that can be used elsewhere or shared with friends and family. Give me a call I may need some.
(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.)