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Plant of the Month

October 2014

Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans

The genus Aloe is large and diverse with over 550 species, subspecies and varieties, together with numerous garden hybrids (Carter et al. 2011). These range in size from the diminutive Aloe descoingsii with rosettes only 5-6cm across, to large branched trees such as Aloe speciosa at 6m tall. (Incidentally, the really big tree aloes now have their own genus, Aloidendron.) The most famous species is Aloe vera which forms the basis of a multi-billion dollar worldwide cosmetics and toiletry industry.

Aloes occur naturally throughout Africa, Madagascar and Arabia, while a few species are naturalised in areas such as the Mediterranean coast. So there is plenty of diversity to choose from. There are about 120 species of Aloe in South Africa (Van Wyk & Smith, 2003) and I am focusing here on Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans.

Aloe mitriformis was first described in 1768 and now consists of three subspecies, of which subsp. distans is probably the most commonly encountered in cultivation. Aloe distans was first described by the famous British botanist Adrian Hardy Haworth in 1812, but was reduced to a subspecies of Aloe mitriformis in 2002. Subsp. distans is distinguished from subsp. mitriformis and subsp. comptonii by being smaller and by its prominent marginal teeth.

Fig 1 Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans growing in a 20cm pot.

Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans has a creeping habit and branches freely from the base forming dense clumps of sprawling stems up to 3m long (Fig 1). The leaves are roughly triangular in shape, bluish-green in colour and the leaf margins are armed with strong golden-yellowish teeth (Fig 2). The inflorescence has the flowers arranged in a dense head (termed capitate) while the individual flowers are relatively large at about 4cm long and deep scarlet in colour (Fig 3).

Fig 2 Close up of a rosette of Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans (about 15cm in diameter) showing the prominent teeth.

The name mitriformis comes from the appearance of the rosette apex, which is shaped liked a bishop's cap or mitre, while the name distans comes from the long (distant) internodes (the structures where the leaf bases join the stem) (Grace et al. 2011).

The plant is easy to grow with no particular requirements, being a moderately slow grower that in time can develop into a large specimen. The plant shown here (Fig 1) is just over 10 years old from seed when it flowered for the first time.

Fig. 3 Inflorescence of Aloe mitriformis subsp. distans.

Aloe mitriformis occurs in the Western Cape, South Africa, where subsp. distans is restricted to a narrow coastal belt from Danger Point 150 km north of Cape Town, then northwards to St. Helena Bay (Van Wyk & Smith, 2003).

Colin C. Walker

References Carter, S., Lavranos, J.J., Newton, L.E. & Walker, C.C. (2011) Aloes. The Definitive Guide. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew/British Cactus & Succulent Society. Grace, O.M., Klopper, R.R., Figueiredo, E. & Smith, G.F. (2011). The Aloe Names Book. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Van Wyk, B.-E. & Smith, G. (2003) Guide to the Aloes of South Africa. 2nd Ed. Briza, Pretoria.

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