They’re hardy, require very little water, and even less fussing. So it’s easy to see why aloes and agaves generate millions of hashtags on TikTok and Instagram.
- do well in containers
- can thrive in small spaces
- tend to resist disease and pests
- easily weather extreme temperature drops
- and can withstand fierce sunlight!
In short, they’re harder to kill than most houseplants, making them the perfect onramp for those new to the joys of plant parenting.
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“They’re so practical and aesthetic,” said Debra Lee Baldwin, known across Southern California (and beyond) as “The Succulent Queen” and author of several books including “Designing With Succulents.” “They’re living sculptures … and they don’t need much care beyond the basics.”
Frank McDonough, botanist at the L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, where many agaves and aloes are on display for visitors, said these plants appeal to our sense of order: “They are not rambling, they are not out of control, they don’t require a lot of labor.”
They are “symmetrical and geometric,” he added, “They fit in a pocket in our psyche.”
Agaves and aloes can often be mistaken for each other, but experts know the clues to telling them apart.
In general, agaves stand out for their “stiff” architecture and mesmerizing rosettes, and their sword-like leaves that can include serrated edges and treacherous spines, horns and teeth, Baldwin said. (This is something to keep in mind as you style your surroundings, and especially if your home includes young children or curious pets.) Agaves are often used in gardening designs around water features.
Aloes, by contrast, are known more for smooth leaves and plush, pillowy protrusions — although some may also have edges with prickles, Baldwin said. So also think carefully about where you want to place this variety in and around your home. From a design perspective, aloes work especially well indoors as accent pieces, and outdoors along borders and paths.
Baldwin offers a simple way to tell aloes from agaves: If you were to slice open the plush leaf of a healthy aloe, its insides would be gel like, while an agave’s sheath would be more fibrous.
If you’re sold on these succulents — and why wouldn’t you be — then here is our A to Z guide to their care and feeding, as well as links to helpful gardening resources for more. (Because if there’s one thing that plant parents know, it’s that there’s always something else to learn!)
Note: Baldwin and McDonough guided us through these tips and facts.
Aloes are native to Africa, especially South Africa, and Madagascar. Agaves are native to the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America.
Blooms might not immediately come to mind when considering aloes and agaves, but they do occur. The L.A. County Arboretum’s bloom calendar says summer is a great time to see aloes erupt in color: Look for pops of red, orange or yellow flowers. There’s at least one variety of aloe that blooms each month of the year. When it comes to agaves, however, you will need a little more patience. “All but a few agaves are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and then die,” Baldwin says on her website. “This may take as many as 25 years, but it will happen.”
Coarse, well-draining soil is crucial for aloes and agaves. Your best bet is a potting soil especially made for cacti and succulents. Make sure your pot has a drainage hole as well, as many decorative pots do not. Roots can rot if plants sit in too much water for too long. (More on watering below.)
Don’t make the common mistake of referring to agaves or aloes, which are succulents, as cacti. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
Eating raw aloe has become a thing, apparently, with some wellness types online claiming it to be a superfood. In some cases, it can be used as a laxative. However, the Mayo Clinic reports that some types of aloe usage can lead to death: “avoid using aloe latex orally.” It probably goes without saying, but, we’ll say it anyway: It’s always best to talk to your doctor before trying anything like this.
Flop. It’s what happens when your plant literally droops, or flops, over the side of its pot. What to do? Start by Googling images of your plant. If your plant isn’t supposed to spill out over the sides of its pot, and it’s not collapsing under its own weight, then there are likely two culprits: Too much water or not enough sun. (More on both below!)
Gel: Aloe gel has been touted for its medicinal properties, and “is generally considered safe and can be effective in treating skin conditions such as burns and psoriasis,” according to the Mayo Clinic. We know there are plenty of IG tutorials showing you how to harvest your own aloe gel, but you might want to stick to the OTC stuff given the chance for a mixup or adverse reactions. Safer yet: Your doctor’s office or pharmacy can also be a source for recommendations.
Humidity: Aloes and agaves don’t like humidity, preferring a drier climate. So a bathroom with bustling shower traffic might not be the best home for your new green friend. Too much humidity can lead to crown rot, according to the gardening section at MasterClass.com, where the reigning king is L.A.’s gardening guru, Ron Finley.
Isolate & Identify: When you first bring home your new aloe or agave, isolate it and identify it. This is actually a good strategy for any plant. If your new plant has some festering pest issues, temporarily isolating it will keep the problem from spreading to your other plants, advises Houseplants Corner. Identifying it is just part of the learning process — What type of plant is it? Where is it from? What are its likes and dislikes? How large is it likely to grow? A good plant shop can also help you with this. Put it all in your plant journal, so you can refer to it later. You do have a plant journal, right? Keep reading.
Ready to dive into the world of agaves, aloes and all things succulents? Join a like-minded tribe, like a neighborhood gardening club, Baldwin said. And now that things are opening up, consider venturing out to gatherings such as the Long Beach Cactus Club Show and sale on May 22 in Bellflower, the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society sale June 10-11 in Van Nuys or the Cactus and Succulent Society of America show and sale July 1-3 at the Huntington in San Marino. Just know that many of these shows feature rare, exotic and expensive succulents that may not grow in your garden, Baldwin said. The upside of attending? “You’ll see succulents you don’t even know existed.”
Keep gardening shears handy when raising agaves, Baldwin suggests on her website: Snip just the sharp points on leaf tips and edges, which can make agaves treacherous. “You have to keep on it. If you only blunt the tips, you won’t compromise the symmetry of the plants,” she said.
Low-light, diffused light, full sunlight — it can all get confusing pretty quickly. In general, aloes and agaves enjoy full sunlight, but learning about the different types of light available throughout your home will make you a much more confident plant parent. A light meter — either hand held, or via a smartphone app — is great for those who desire precision. The rest of us can start with this guide from Savvy Gardening and ask: “What does my plant see?”
Mites and other pests are uncommon in hardy aloes and agaves. But it does happen. Baldwin says her guide to pests, diseases and other problems is one of the most popular at her site.
A guided family night hike at the L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden on May 28 will introduce visitors to “the botanical treasures of Africa.” So aloe lovers will be in heaven, McDonough said. The hike starts at 5 p.m, $15 for members, $20 for non-members. Registration required. arboretum.org
Outdoors vs. indoors: When choosing aloes and agaves for outdoor planting, feel free to go with more vibrant colors, Baldwin said. When choosing indoor plants, go for green, suggests this succulents guide from Gardenista, adding that you’re more likely to meet with success.
Pups are arguably the best part of raising agaves, while aloe offspring are known as offsets. These bitty plant babies are perfect for splitting off and sharing with friends, or as new additions to your plant family. There’s a great guide to pups propagation at Joyusgarden.com, with lots of helpful photos.
There are so many varieties of aloes and agaves, so keep looking until you find one you like. One of our favorites is the Queen Victoria agave, because it looks so striking — like an armadillo and a porcupine had a baby. Or, as Baldwin puts it, “a fashionable artichoke.” It thrives in full sun, and has no problem if temperatures temporarily dip into the teens, according to Gardenia.net. It’s virtually disease free. “A really good example of a perfect and perfectly desirable agave,” Baldwin said. “An outstanding pot plant.”
Rosette refers to the pleasing and often mesmerizing growth pattern of aloes and agaves, reminiscent of overlapping rose petals.
Sunlight: Succulents like aloes and agaves need lots of it. Ideally, six or so hours a day. But don’t be discouraged if you do not have a sun-drenched plot of land. Many succulents do just fine on a lightly shaded patio, and some plants — like fox tail agave — can actually suffer from too much sun. (Welcome to the fine art of plant management, where striking the perfect balance is everything — and can feel infuriating at times. Just like parenthood.) World of Succulents suggests bright indirect sun for aloes — perhaps a sunny windowsill in your kitchen or living room? Just remember to rotate pots every few days or so. And the site suggests as much full sun as possible for agaves. Baldwin cautions, however, that many plants in nurseries are shielded with shade cloth: “So keep in mind sun scorch [when you get the plants home]. They need to acclimate to greater sun exposure. Shield them in the middle of the day.”
Tequila: Aloes may make some pretty good ointments, but agaves help bring tequila to the table. Pretty sure agaves win this round.
Unglazed pots are “a better choice if the plants prefer dry soils or if you have a heavy hand at watering,” according to Succulent Plant Care. The clay helps wick off moisture, which can cause rot. Baldwin says drainage is more important. If you have a pot without a drainage hole, don’t panic, Baldwin said: When you water, just think “dribble” rather than “drench.”
Variety: Agaves and aloes come in a remarkable variety of sizes, shapes and colors. It can get overwhelming. To get started, check out Baldwin’s “Succulent’s Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties.” Gardenia.net also has a handy tool for comparing and choosing the perfect plant.
Water: Gah! How much is too much? Or too little? McDonough suggests keeping it simple: Gently water your plant over a tray or sink, just enough to see runoff through the drainage hole. When you’re sure your plant has gotten a good soaking, let it go nearly dry before watering again. This can take a few weeks. You can test it by probing a finger down an inch or two. If it feels moist, wait a few more days before testing again. Is it dry? Then it’s time to water. This is precisely the kind of info that is helpful to have in your gardening journal.
Xeriscaping — landscaping in a way to reduce or eliminate irrigation — certainly has its critics. But more and more gardens in Southern California are choosing to go this route. And agaves and aloes can play a picturesque role, when properly chosen and cared for.
You are the expert on your plants. Journal, take pictures, track your plants’ sun exposure, and how often and how much you water them and fertilize them (if you use fertilizer). These notes will help you figure out what suits your plants best — and turn you into a plant pro in no time.
Finally, do you know your zone? Los Angeles and Southern California feel like one big zone of sunny perfection (our bias is showing) but in fact the region is made up of microclimates, and those can have an impact on your plants. Plants that thrive in the arid foothills may not do as well in cooler, coastal climes, for example. Use your zip code to find your planting zone — also referred to as your hardiness zone — on this USDA map, so you can avoid buying plants that can’t handle such low temperatures. Knowing your zone is especially helpful when buying plants online, Baldwin said. This American Horticultural Society Plant Heat-Zone map can help you on the other end — the hot zone, so to speak. If this feels a bit confusing, you are not alone. The helpful Gardening Know How website has one of the best explainers we could find.
“It may be a little intimidating to some people,” Baldwin said, “but if you are going to garden you need to know your zone.”
Lead illustration by Alborz Kamalizad.