Dwarf Hybrid Aloes

Aloe pseudoparvula flowers

Dwarf Hybrid Aloes

By Howard Drury

While there are many dwarf Aloes in the wild and hybrids were occurring in the wild, it wasn't until the 1980s John Bleck crossed Aloe descoingsii x A. haworthioides. In the early 1980s, few could really appreciate the potential of crossing dwarf species to produce plants with rugged, architectural foliage from which a flower spike would emerge several times a year. Little happen for the next 20 years. Then, just like buses, two breeders realized John had actually created something that might be in huge demand.

Kelly Griffin, along with Karen Zimmerman, saw a market for these dwarf 'Fantasy Aloes' or, as some called them, tabletop aloes. Today, Kelly's aloes are very much a part of the even bigger demand for succulents. Kelly's plants even when fully mature rarely exceed 30 cm (12") in height and are very happy in small pots, perhaps the maximum size being a 15-20 cm (6-8") half pot

Like most Aloes, these are happy on the narrow modern windowsill in full light and are happy in dry atmospheres such as found in a modern centrally heated home from America to Europe and the UK. Some will tolerate it down to -1C (30F)

Kelly Griffin part owned businesses such as Rancho Soledad Nurseries, Xeric Growers and was responsible for sourcing new plants for Altman Plants. Karen Zimmerman worked at the Huntington Museum and Botanic Garden, and through their plant sales, like Kelly, had a ready outlet for her best plants. Other including legendary breeder of the cabbage type Echeverias with crenations and frilly leaves, Dick Wright also started breeding. John Bleck a private grower began breeding again, along with Larry Weisel (Altmans again) and another private breeder Nathan Wong in Hawaii, have all produced outstanding plants now appearing on the retail markets around the world.

Much of the early work focused around Blecks work 20 years earlier using Aloe descoingsii and A. haworthioides, although we now know these are not species as originally thought but hybrids themselves.  Today, many complex crosses are tried and grown on to see if any seedlings are good enough to go forward to mass production using micropropagation. This is making them available to the mass public at cheaper prices than collectors who would without micropropagation have to wait years for numbers to build up sufficiently before they were offered to a select few.

The big downside of this rapid introduction is the pressure to produce new plants, coupled with the fact they have not been grown under a wide range of conditions and problems. They are relatively untested. Perhaps they should be grown alongside some existing dwarf Aloes such as Aloe erinacea, A. castilloniae, A. droseroides, A. inexpectata, Haworthia lanosa, etc.

The results of these breeders pushing plant breeding boundaries for the next 15 years or so has seen more refined but grotesque leaf forms in some many amazing colour combinations Banding or zoning of the foliage has become more pronounced, flower colour has been taken into account along with the compact flowering habit in relation to the plant's overall size to make them a must purchase. Most are F1 hybrids, while a few F2 forms have appeared. Crosses are becoming more complex with up to four parents involved in the Aloe 'Lizard Lips' they are (A. descoignsii x A. calcairophila) x (A. bellatula x A. rauhii) The result was so outstanding the RHS gave this plant a converted 'Award of Garden Merit' (AGM) In the Uk we should pay tribute to Stuart Riley of Plantlifecatus who regularly visits the USA to source plants for the UK market via his eBay shop and at plant sales at cactus shows etc.

The following is from Exotica Esoterica (C) no infringement of copyright inferred and for the full versions click here

Other parents used in the different breeding lines include A. divaricata, A. parvula, A. bakeri, A. deltoideodonta, A. rauhii, A. calcairophylla, A. haworthioides, A. albiflora, A. juvenna and A. bellatula. More recently, breeders and hobbyists (including me) have been able to add the genes of very attractive, relatively new species in cultivation such as A. pseudoparvula (published in 2004) and A. castilloniae (published in 2006) to the mix. An examination of the species mentioned previously will often reveal a strong resemblance to complex hybrids, as has been noted in the previous paragraph, but also see A. bakeri superficial similarity to things like young A. ‘Gargoyle’ (= ‘KG #5 x ‘Aumakua Mano’). These “hints” may be useful to breeders in unravelling the often-mysterious origins of F3+ hybrids whose parentage has been lost or intentionally obfuscated. It should come as no surprise that commercial breeders are often cagey about sharing their hybridization strategies.

A few well-known introductions made since 2015 are exceptional that random crosses made between almost any of them, or back to A. pseudoparvula, A. descoignsii or A. ‘Pepe’ will probably produce at least a few desirable progeny for a hobbyist from each seed sow. Indeed, some very recent online offerings by commercial breeders in Thailand that are ostensibly based on noteworthy recent Griffin or Zimmerman hybrids show a great deal of promise. On the flip side, there are some private growers and nurseries around the world who will list any junky, unremarkable, randomly-pollinated complex hybrid as a “Kelly Griffin type” or “Karen Zimmerman variety”, free-riding on these hybridizers’ reputations as a sales pitch. New, desirable cultivars now appear on the market with some degree of frequency, particularly from Kelly Griffin’s/Altman’s introductions from PTC.

Care should be taken when purchasing any of these hybrids from sources other than very reputable nurseries. Besides the very real risk posed by accidental introductions of aloe gall mites to collections, eBay and Etsy sellers routinely enhance the colours of their images to generate interest and social media buzz. While all of these hybrids will vary in color and form to some degree based on cultural conditions, collectors should approach purchases of plants based on suspiciously vivid colours in digital images shown online with caution. There is also apparent genetic drift in some hybrids being propagated in PTC that may manifest itself with more subtle colour and/or spine variations and the odd variegate or three. Note that changes from very bright, warm and dry growing conditions to cool and shade will subdue previously vibrant colours in very short order.

Also be aware that Aloe is a CITES-listed genus (Appendices I and II), including hybrids but excluding A. vera. There are well-telegraphed legal restrictions to moving them across international boundaries without export permits from the proper authority. Caveat emptor to those who purchase undocumented aloes, particularly Appendix I species, online from Thailand and the EU. One of these days, you may receive the dreaded “knock on the door” that - I guarantee you - will ruin your day.

Aloes generally have colourful and striking inflorescences. Fantasy aloes are no exception, and many have very showy tubular flowers as an added attraction to their strikingly-marked foliage. Most have typical dwarf Malagasy aloe flower colour, with their elongated corollas displaying shades ranging from pale pink through to deep red for most of their length, usually with pale green or cream-coloured tips. Most hybrids in this group produce flowers that are coral pink with light green tips. They will usually start flowering in the late spring, with peak flowering in the San Francisco Bay Area during late summer and early fall. Vigorous, established plants will flower twice or more yearly and can put on quite a show in late summer. Inflorescences will often branch early in mature plants, and keikis/plantlets may occasionally form on basal bracts of the inflorescences. These can be removed and propagated on when the inflorescence is finally pruned off.

Pod maturity from hand pollination during spring and summer at intermediate to warm daytime temperatures and cool nights in this area ranges from 32 to 85 days. Most hybrid pods will start to split somewhere right around 50-55 days following pollination date. Successfully-pollinated flowers rapidly show evidence that they “took”, with the ovary swelling visibly after a few days and the pedicel persisting at a narrow, upright angle to the peduncle.

Hybrids using A. descoingsii and A. ‘Pepe’ as a seed parent can ripen particularly quickly, so keep a close eye on these for signs of pods splitting after anything past 30 days after pollination. Germination from freshly-harvested fully ripe seed is almost immediate, with cotyledons/seed leaves visible 7-14 days after planting if correctly surface sown and lightly-covered with coarse sand or fine pumice. Sterilize seedling substrates with boiling water prior to sowing seeds. Properly stored seed should retain viability for more than a year, but germination times may be slower than that seen in very fresh seed. Hybrid plantlets can grow surprisingly quickly for a tropical stem succulent, even under outdoors cultivation in a Mediterranean climate.

This rapid growth is a boon to hybridizers since relative vigor, basic colour scheme and interesting leaf traits are often evident at a very early age (150-180 days) in these types of aloes, permitting early selection for both “set asides” and discards (see below). My first opportunistic complex cross was made using two fairly good parents produced unremarkable-looking but near-finished small plants in 4”/10 cm pots at less than nine months from seed sow, several of which were already offsetting by that point.

Contrast this with the time required to flower many orchids – routinely up to six years plus from seed sowing under optimal conditions to see whether the cross or selfing was worthwhile

One common denominator among almost all the most striking dwarf hybrids is their intolerance of severe cold or prolonged spells of very wet, cool weather that is hardwired into many of the dwarf Malagasy species. While there are some notable exceptions that can handle 28 degrees F/-2 C if kept on the dry side, many of the more tropical species will be damaged or killed outright by even brief temperature drops into the low-30s F/0-1 C for prolonged periods. One great advantage of their small size is that these plants can be brought indoors and spelled (keep on the dry side) near a bright window for a couple of months with no lasting damage to their rosette form or colour.

Properly cultivated fantasy and species aloes should retain a full rosette of healthy leaves and normally shed basal leaves at a notably slower pace than they add new ones. I have noticed that some growers show these plants with bare stems even when fairly young, indicating cultural deficiencies past or ongoing. I have received the occasional fantasy aloe grown from stem cuttings that had lost their lower foliage during the rooting phase. I find that they will invariably offset freely at their bases when conditions improved. The leggy top growth can then be pruned off and restarted as a rosette in another pot. Almost all of these selections cluster early in their lives, if well grown. Offsets can be removed either by gently prying them from the base of the mother plant, or by freeing them from the main stem with the tip of a sharp knife. Rooting hormones seem to improve the speed with which unrooted offsets strike.

These plants are somewhat susceptible to root loss if kept too wet.

It is Gospel among succulent growers that most Aloe species and hybrids are self-infertile, but selfings can be successful on occasion. I have a very beautiful bright yellow-flowered form of A. humilis from the Huntington Botanical Gardens that is autogamous and regularly sets fertile seed without any manipulation. Plants grown on from uncontrolled open-pollination, often by hummingbirds or bees, can sometimes be attractive and may be marketed as named hybrids on eBay and elsewhere. The bottom line is that if you like the plant but have real questions about the cultivar name, by all means purchase it if you feel the price is right, but don’t count on it having a “real” pedigree.

For people interested in learning more about these plants, take note that the internet is unfortunately awash with images of fantasy aloes with the wrong, invented and/or misspelled names attached.

Cool nights, warm days and full exposure to morning and midday sun, coupled with proper nutrition, definitely help to bring out high colour in these plants. Note that most of the plants shown have freshly-emerged inflorescences visible, which is typical for early fall in this area. Since the leaves of some of these aloes are very faintly translucent, rosettes that are strongly backlit by late afternoon sunshine can seem to glow when seen at close range.

And for the still incredulous, I can assure you that Karen Zimmerman’s Aloe cv. ‘Oik’, A. cv. ‘Marsha Layhew’ and A. cv. ‘Secret Agent’ creations really do have these improbable colour combinations when they are grown fairly “hard” in coastal central California.

Breeders’ names are shown in parentheses when known; KZ = Karen Zimmerman and KG = Kelly Griffin.

A. 'Blizzard' (Altman)

A. 'Bright Ember' (KG)

A. 'Bright Star' (KG)

A. 'Christmas Carol' (KG)

A. 'Christmas Sleigh' (KG)

A. 'Coral Fire' (KG)

A. 'Delta Dawn' (Altman)

A. 'Delta Lights' (KG)

A. Dracula's Blood' (KG)

A. DZ (KZ)

A. 'Gargoyle' (KZ)

A. 'Icicle' (KG)

A. 'Lavender Star' (KG)

A. 'Marsha Leyhew' (KZ)

A. 'Oik' (KZ)

A. 'Orange Marmalade' (KG)

A. 'Pink Blush' (KG)

A. 'Piranha' (Larry Weisel')

A. 'Quicksilver' (aka A. 'White Stag'

A. 'Raspberry Ruffles' (KG)

A. 'Sawbones' (KZ)

A. 'Secret Agent' (KZ)

A. 'Starfire' (KG)

A. 'Sunrise' (KG)

A. 'Sunset' (KG)

A. 'Viper' (KG)

A. 'Vito' (aka A.' Green Sand') (KG)

A. 'Wrasse' (Larry Weisel)


More to follow as this factsheet develops in the next few weeks


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