Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter.
South Africa has a wide range of climates and a variety of plant habitats. The Western Cape, for example, is noted for its hot, dry summers and mild, moist winters. Other regions, including the grasslands of the high veld, experience cool, very dry winters and warm, periodically wet, summers.
This climatic variation explains the differences in the growth cycles of South African plants. Those that have to endure the summer droughts of the Cape are active in the winter months but go completely dormant in the summer. Plants that make their home on the veld, such as this spotted aloe (Aloe greatheadii var. davyana), are dormant during the dry winters and do all their growing in the summers.
Towards the end of winter dormancy, however, the spotted aloe (and many of its kin), will flower even when the landscape is still parched. Despite showing signs of drought-stress—with dried and shriveled leaf-tips—it is still capable of producing healthy spikes of yellow-orange blooms that stand up tall and obvious in the tinder-dry landscape.
This seemingly odd behavior ensures that the flowers get the undivided attention of any native pollinating bees and birds in the area, thus increasing the chance of successful seed production.
Our own plant in the Cactus and Succulent House, the right-hand wing of the Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory, has three, fine, flower spikes this year and is surrounded by other aloes that are also starting to bloom.
A note for the truly botanically interested: Aloe greatheadii var. davyana was formerly known as A. verdoorniae, and some taxonomists now recognize it as A. davyana.