The aloe barberae, or tree aloe is a close cousin of the common aloe vera plant that many cooks love to have in their kitchen. Like the aloe plant, the clear, gel fluid from the leaves can be used medicinally, but that is probably not its main attraction for many growers.
Aloe barberae is one of the largest aloe plants. It is a native of South Africa, where it grows in protected valleys along the coast. For many people in the world “south” means “warm” but South Africa, which is the southern most country in the continent of Africa. Even so, it is 6,927 kilometers away from Antarctica, a distance that is equivalent to the distance between Canada and the Panama Canal. Australia is a similar distance from Antarctica.
What does that have to do with trees, one might ask. The answer is that it has to do with climate, which definitely has a great deal to do with trees. South Africa has a mixture of biomes, including rain forest and savanna plains. In some areas, it is temperate, while in others it has a climate similar to that around the Mediterranean. Like Australia, April to August is winter in South Africa. Unlike Australia, however, the central part of South Africa has a higher elevation which means that the central parts will sometimes experience snow. Yet on the coast on the Indian Ocean side, there are gentle beaches and the weather is moderate.
The original specimen of Aloe Barberae was submitted to Kew Gardens for classification by Mary Elizabeth Barber. She collected the specimen in the area formerly called Transkei, which is on the eastern side of South Africa, along the coast that faces the Indian Ocean. The area includes subtropical areas, as well as some dry savannas. As you might guess from this, aloe barberae (sometimes also known as aloe bainesii after another plant gatherer) prefers areas that are warm, have good drainage, and have a modest amount of rainfall. The tree aloes can easily withstand a certain amount of drought, all of which makes them an easy choice for growing in Australia, or similarly warm areas.
Like most succulents, aloe barberae does not do well in areas that retain a great deal of moisture. The strange trees with their fleshy appendages can usually survive a great deal of neglect. In fact they require little care, especially when planted out-of-doors. The young trees can be grown in pots for quite a long while, and are an interesting plant to have on your patio or balconey.
When planted out-of-doors, however, a tree aloe should be given plenty of room. Not only can they reach heights of up to 60 feet, but their trunks can also reach a girth of up to 36 inches or possibly a little more. Their questing roots can put pressure on foundations and similar constructions, so it is best to place these interesting feature trees a respectful distance from you house or other buildings.
With that said, an aloe tree can be the perfect accent for your low-water garden area. Arrange shorter plants, such as agave, yucca, or cacti in the same area. This will help with consistent watering needs. Some types of low-water plants can actually harm themselves by sending roots into water-rich areas, especially if irrigated portions of your garden are situated nearby.
All of which adds up to an interesting tree that is perfect for areas where there is low rainfall and moderately warm weather most of the year. Not only are the bunches of fleshy tendrils at the end of each branch visually interesting, it flowers during the southern hemisphere’s winter, which is between April and August, put up a spike that produces orange/pink blossoms. In its natural environment, it is pollinated by sunbirds.
There are a number of A. Barberae hybrids, which include Hercules, Rex, Goliath, Nick Deinhart, and Medusa. Each has unique features, which could make collecting all of them quite interesting, especially if you have enough room to create your own Aloidendron barberae grove.
Overall, in the right climate it is a nearly carefree architectural tree that will lend interest to your low water garden, creating a focal point around which you can group other low-water plants. Once established, it requires little effort on the part of any gardener. Since it is an evergreen, there is little cleanup around it, which is another plus for busy homeowners. Birds and insects love the nectar rich flowers, with offer a splash of bright color during the cool season.