This psychedelic succulent looks like it’s from another planet! With its enchanting geometric spirals and compact evergreen growth habit, spiral aloe is a houseplant lover’s dream. This unique and rare succulent is known for its perfect spiral-shaped leaves that form an attractive rosette. In its native range in Lesotho, Africa, this plant faces extinction, and cultivating it could help preserve important plant biodiversity.
It is adapted to colder areas than many other succulents can withstand. The moderately sized plants are incredibly easygoing, asking for little more than a gravelly, well-drained soil and the occasional sip of water. This African native plant can be grown outdoors in USDA zones 7 through 11, making it the perfect addition to rock gardens and succulent containers.
Let’s dig into everything you need to know about growing this striking spiralized aloe!
History and Cultivation
This rare plant from southern Africa faces extinction due to overharvesting.
Spiral aloe is a very rare and strikingly beautiful plant native to a mountainous region of southern Africa. The plant is in danger of extinction in the wild due to over-harvesting and overgrazing. The plants are usually propagated from offsets and seeds. To make matters worse, the local bird species that pollinates the plant is also declining, making it difficult for plants to propagate in the wild.
It’s very important to purchase from a sustainable and ethical source and never support importers of this wild endangered plant. Purchasing plants or seeds illegally removed from the wild is illegal, so be sure to check that your source is reputable before purchasing. Better yet, you can learn to propagate it below to expand your collection and naturally expand the population to share with your garden friends.
What is Spiral Aloe?
Aloe polyphylla features a stunning spiraling pattern.
Also known as Aloe polyphylla, this gorgeous spiny succulent has leaves that radiate from a rosette in a spiraling fractal pattern. It is particularly popular for temperate rock gardens because it can withstand frost, unlike many of its succulent cousins. This species is considered hardy outdoors in zones 7-11.
Spiral aloe grows in a compact, perfect spiral that draws the eyes into awe. Each row of spirals contains between 15 and 30 sharp, symmetrical leaves that may radiate in a clockwise or counterclockwise pattern. Leaves occur in 5 ranks or tiers. The species name, polyphylla, means “many leaves” because each mature plant has approximately 150 leaves.
The thick, fleshy leaves are greenish-gray and lined with pale green or white spines along the edges. The leaves have a dark purple terminal spike at the tip. Rosettes can reach up to 24” across and bloom reddish-orange flowers in the spring or summer.
Where Does It Originate?
Native to Lesotho’s mountain ranges, this plant adapts well to temperate environments.
Spiral aloe is native to high-altitude grasslands of the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountain ranges of Lesotho, Africa. This rare plant is not known to occur naturally anywhere else. Lesotho is a small, landlocked country surrounded by South Africa.
The bright pinkish-red and orangish-yellow flowers of Aloe polyphylla are the national flower of Lesotho. The plant is sometimes called the “gem of Drakensberg” or kroonaalwyn, meaning “crown aloe.” Indigenous groups use the plant for tribal medicinal ceremonies and magic called Muthi.
In its original environment, this succulent prefers basalt rock and gravelly crevices on steep slopes. It thrives with moderate moisture, warm weather, exceptional drainage, and low fertility. The mountainous region where it grows wild also experiences cold nights, so this succulent is adapted to more temperate areas of the United States as well.
While propagation from seed is best, it may be possible to grow this plant from pups (offsets) or cuttings. This succulent is not as easy to propagate as other aloes in your collection, but with a little patience, you can learn to replicate the gorgeous fractal spirals as many times as needed.
It is important to propagate this rare plant on your own because it is difficult to obtain specimens and is endangered in the wild. International trade or illegally purchasing important plants can get you in big trouble. The plants can also be expensive.
Sow seeds in well-draining soil, keeping them moist for successful germination.
If you can’t find transplants at your local nursery, the seeds tend to be more accessible from online exotic seed sources. The seeds are fairly tiny and often come in small quantities, so it’s best to sow them in pots to ensure the highest germination rate possible.
However, you don’t want to keep the seeds excessively warm, as you might with other succulents. Instead, they prefer to germinate at roughly room temperature or 60-70°F.
To sow spiral aloe seeds:
- Fill small 3 or 4” pots with a succulent soil blend that is high in perlite and gravel for drainage.
- Make a shallow hole in the soil and sow one seed per pot.
- Press the seed into the soil surface and very slightly cover with a dusting of sandy soil.
- Avoid burying too deep, as the seeds need some light to germinate.
- Carefully water in with a spray bottle mister, taking care not to flood or displace the seeds.
- Keep the seeds moist but not wet until they sprout. Don’t let the soil dry out.
- Place in an area with bright sunlight or a grow light. Avoid super high temperatures.
- Wait 1-3 weeks until the baby succulents sprout.
Alternatively, some people successfully germinate the seeds in moist paper towels and then transplant them into the soil.
The first leaves should appear as a fleshy pair of cotyledons. Within a few weeks, they will start looking more like aloe plants. The spiralized pattern does not develop until at least 6-10 leaves have grown. Keeping the young plants in containers is important until they have an established root system.
Mature plants may produce offsets, which can be transplanted after developing a callous.
Some sources insist that spiral aloe doesn’t produce pups like other succulents, while other gardeners say they have seen offsets grow from the base of their plants. While I have never seen pups on this plant, some may produce them.
Perhaps many of us have not seen pups grow from spiral aloe because our plants are too young. If yours reaches a mature age over 3-4 years old and has all its needs met, it may create offsets. You can propagate offsets like other succulents by lifting and dividing them from the mother plant.
To remove and transplant offsets:
- Locate a moderately sized “pup” at least 3-4” in diameter near the base of a healthy mother plant.
- Wear gloves, as the leaves can be sharp.
- Use a sterile knife and trowel to gently loosen the soil around the base of the offset and cut it from the main plant.
- Ensure the offset has plenty of leaves and healthy roots attached to it.
- Shake away the soil and allow the cut portion to callous over for a few days while keeping it in a dry, dim area.
- Transplant into well-drained soil just like the mother and provide small amounts of moisture for the first few weeks.
Try propagating from leaf cuttings, but success is uncertain due to challenges.
Once again, cutting propagation of this plant is a bit of a controversy. Some gardeners say it’s impossible, while others have had success. If you want to try it, keep your expectations low because its leaves are not as eager to sprout roots as those of its succulent cousins. Still, seeing if your mature plant can yield more cousins from its healthy leaves is worth a shot.
To take aloe cuttings:
- Find a healthy, bright green leaf on the lower spiral of a mature plant.
- Wear gloves and grab the sharp outer leaf from the base.
- Gently wiggle the leaf until it detaches from the center of the plant. If it doesn’t readily detach, use a sanitized knife to cut it away from the mother.
- Place the leaf on a paper towel and allow the cut end to callous over in a dim area.
- Wait a few days. It’s very important that the leaf “butt” is calloused so it doesn’t rot when you put it in the soil.
- Prepare shallow pots with a blend of gravelly, sandy, or perlite-rich soil blend.
- Bury the calloused base of the leaf an inch or so in the soil, pressing it in place.
- Use a mister bottle to keep the base of the plant moist but not soggy.
- Place in a bright spot with indirect sunlight.
- Wait several weeks until roots develop.
- After a month, give the cutting a gentle yank to see if it has rooted. At this point, you can slowly introduce it to full sunlight and transplant into a larger container.
Alternatively, you can mist the base of a calloused leaf cutting while it is still on the paper towel and place it in indirect sunlight to see if it will produce roots.
Planting requires sturdy gloves like the Felco 701 Garden Gloves. This plant is seriously sharp, and the sap may be irritating if it gets on your skin!
Once your hands are protected, the main key to success is keeping the base of the plant at the same soil level as it was in its container. Burying any deeper can cause problems with rot.
How to Transplant
Carefully transplant by digging a wide area, loosening the roots, and providing ample space.
Relocating a spiral aloe is straightforward but not always as easy as it looks. Move carefully, or this plant will really beat up your skin! Dig a wide circumference around the root base to minimize disturbance, and use a shovel to lift it from the ground. If transplanting from a pot, massage the container to loosen the roots before removing them from the pot.
Loosen the soil and prepare a hole about 1.5 times deeper and wider than the current root ball. Ensure the roots are spread horizontally and down into the soil to encourage expansion into the new space. Place the plant inside and gently backfill to cover the roots without getting soil on the lower leaves.
Aloe polyphylla should be planted at least 24” from neighboring plants. Some landscapers prefer wider spacing of 3-4 feet to allow the plant to spread to its full abundance. The mature spiral may reach up to 2 feet in diameter and 1 foot tall.
How to Grow
If you have successfully grown Aloe vera or other succulents, you should have no problem with this spiralized cousin. This species needs slightly more moisture than other cultivars and tolerates colder temperatures, making it suitable for rock gardens in regions as cool as hardiness zone 7.
Plant in partial to full sun for the showiest plants.
Spiral aloe enjoys partial to full sun but does not need hot direct light like many other succulents. In hot climates, partial afternoon shade is ideal.
About 6 hours of morning or evening sunlight keeps this fractal beauty growing to its fullest potential. It does fine under the dappled shade of mid-sized shrubs or cacti. If growing indoors, a south-facing or west-facing window is great.
This succulent is drought-tolerant and requires well-draining soil.
With its fleshy leaves and southern African roots, it’s no surprise that this plant is quite drought-tolerant. The most common mistake new growers make is overwatering this succulent. However, it does enjoy more water than desert succulents.
The easiest way to avoid overwatering is by growing in extra gravelly soil and checking the soil before irrigating. The roots may succumb to root-rotting fungus if they sit in water too long. The soil should thoroughly dry out between every watering. If it still feels wet, do not water it!
If growing outdoors, supplemental water is typically unnecessary in the fall and winter while the plant is semi-dormant. In areas where you get rainfall throughout the year, it’s best to grow spiral aloe in a container that can be brought under a patio to protect it from rain storms. Indoor plants enjoy a nice drink, and you should provide water until it flows out of the drainage hole into the catchment tray. Then, you can let the soil dry for several days or one week (depending on conditions) before watering again.
Provide well-draining, acidic soil with gravel or perlite for aeration.
Spiral aloe naturally grows in rocky basalt crevices on steep slopes. The loose rock ensures continuous drainage so the roots never sit in wet conditions. Basalt also makes the soil slightly acidic, so it is important to check that your soil pH is not too alkaline.
Adding fine gravel, perlite, pumice, or lava rock can improve the aeration and acidity. This succulent thrives in rock gardens and areas with sandy or gravelly textures. You can also purchase a pre-made soil blend made specifically for succulents and cacti.
Climate and Temperature
Aloe polyphylla thrives in temperate conditions and can handle slight frost with established roots.
While many succulents are accustomed to extreme heat, and some are somewhat cold-hardy, this aloe is best suited to milder and even temperate conditions. It naturally grows in mountainous regions of Lesotho, tolerating fairly chilly nights. However, it cannot handle extreme frost or extreme heat. It is best kept at temperatures between 40° and 85°F.
Some growers in zones 7 and 8 report that mature plants can handle slight frost if growing in a rock garden that retains heat through the night. They can even remain evergreen beneath slight snow as long as they’re fully established before exposure to cold weather.
Protection from high humidity and extreme wind is essential. Plants can blow over in harsh storms. In very humid climates, it’s best kept as a houseplant in dryer areas of the home.
It thrives in low-fertility soil, with some using occasional feeding for flowering.
You do not need to fertilize because this species naturally grows in low-fertility, sandy soil. Some container growers feed it a balanced slow-release fertilizer once per year in the spring to try to encourage flowering.
Remove withered leaves and check for signs of rot if you notice yellowing.
There is not much you need to do to maintain spiral aloe, as the plant is quite robust and self-sustaining. If you notice any withered or diseased leaves, remove them with gloves and a sharp, sanitized knife. If the plant begins to yellow or wilt, you may need to examine the roots for signs of rot and take the appropriate steps to remedy it.
Rare Aloe polyphylla remains unaltered and pristine, cherished for its natural beauty and rarity.
The magical spiral aloe belongs to the species Aloe polyphylla. Due to its rarity and natural beauty, the plant has not been hybridized or altered in any way.
The stunning magical fractals of this plant perfectly complement other aloes and succulents in a houseplant arrangement or rock garden planting. You can grow Aloe polyphylla alongside any plant that enjoys gravelly, poor soil and grows in zones 8-11.
Varied agave types thrive in rocky, sandy soil with infrequent watering.
Agave plants come in many shapes and sizes, but they all tend to enjoy rocky, sandy soil and infrequent watering. A planting of Parry’s agave or Agave potatorum rosettes looks gorgeous alongside this spiralized aloe.
Sedum album is a low-growing creeping succulent that serves as an excellent groundcover.
The Sedum or stonecrop genus includes over 500 species of succulent low-growing plants that look phenomenal alongside Aloe polyphylla. A creeping species like Sedum album or Sedum angelina would make a great ground cover beneath spiral aloe in a container or border bed.
Echeveria glauca has similar soil and watering needs.
Blue echeveria (Echeveria glauca) has striking purplish-blue leaves with ruffly rosettes that create a spiralized polka-dot effect when planted with spiral aloe. These succulents both prefer gravelly soil and infrequent watering.
Aloe vera is a closely related cousin.
We can’t forget spiral aloe’s famous medicinal cousin, Aloe vera. If you provide at least 18-24” of space between these plants, they will gladly grow outdoors in a rock garden or near each other in a large container.
Pests and Diseases
This rare exotic aloe is remarkably resilient and virtually problem-free. The only issues you need to be aware of are the occasional sucking insect and rotting issues caused by overwatering.
Aphids, Scale Insects, and Mealybugs
Combat aphids, scale, and mealybugs on succulents with diluted neem oil.
You would be very lucky to grow succulents without encountering at least one issue with these tiny sap-sucking bugs. Aphids look like tiny oval-shaped white or green insects on the undersides of aloe leaves. Scale insects are even smaller and may cause a white, powdery appearance on the foliage. Mealybugs are fluffy and white, gathering in clusters near the base of the leaves.
All these insects are best eliminated with a firm wiping of diluted neem oil solution. While some aphid infestations are dealt with by spraying with a blast of water, I wouldn’t recommend this for succulents because excessive moisture and humidity can cause disease issues.
Prevent root rot by using well-drained soil and treat it by pruning damaged roots and replanting.
Overwatering or poorly drained soil are key causes of rotten roots in all aloe plants. The base of the plant may begin looking pale or yellow. Leaves may turn yellow and become wilted or floppy because they aren’t getting enough moisture. This paradox occurs because the excessive soggy conditions lead to the development of a root fungus that inhibits the plant from uptaking water.
To avoid root rot, use extremely well-drained soil thoroughly amended with perlite, sand, gravel, or pumice. If rot has already taken hold, you may be able to save the plant by carefully digging it up (remember to wear gloves when handling), pruning away the infected pieces of roots, and replanting in better-draining conditions.
Avoid watering until the soil has thoroughly dried out.
Rare spiral aloe is an exotic accent in various displays.
Spiral aloe is a rare succulent primarily used as an exotic, mystical accent in rock gardens, succulent containers, and houseplant displays. The plant is native to Lesotho in southern Africa and was used in tribal medicine and religious ceremonies. The sap irritates the skin and should not be used as a replacement for Aloe vera gel.
This uniquely psychedelic-looking succulent differs slightly from its cousins because it tolerates colder temperatures and doesn’t enjoy extreme heat. Take note of its mountainous home with gravelly, well-drained sloped soils and moderate summer rainfall.
Water the plant when the soil dries out and avoid extreme wind or rain exposure. Remember that spiral aloe is very rare and special. Buy seeds from a reputable source, and if you visit Lesotho, never remove the plant or any of its parts from the wild.