Early on a coldest-to-date morning last week. I look out of the guest room window to see how the aloes are doing. Ohoh… The drama queen, the hater of frost, is doing a Sarah Bernhardt on us, a slow languid collapse into a dramatic death. In the 23 years since the house was built and the aloes planted here, we have had three seasons in which they all flowered fully. Yet year after year we hope. The last few years have been particularly cruel, with the edges of some leaves also turning mushy before drying to hard brown scar tissue.
Sarah Bernhardt is always the first to complain – perhaps because she starts off with flower trusses held on the horizontal. She is Aloe marlohtii, and most dramatic and statuesque of all South African aloes. (Says I, possibly a little parochially…)
This aloe, with its tall dense candelabra which turn to yellow as they open should be easy to identify, as few such flowerers can survive even light frost. It might be a hybrid of Aloe spectabilis, which has heavier leaves and less elegant flower trusses. Whatever it is, its beauty is often obvious before the frost gets to it.
Aloe arborescens is a local which forms a branching trunk. Last year we thinned the branches and this year the rosettes of leaves look better and the plants are flowering prolifically. It takes a substantial frost to damage this one – and as it is an early flowerer, it has given quite a show normally before that happens.
But back to our drama queen… She staggers around the stage for a few more days, lifting her head just sufficiently to check if she’s getting the attention she thinks she deserves. Then a colder night plunges the knife once more and leaves even her companions darkened and weak-kneed.
Finally last night the temperature fell to minus three degrees Celsius… Even some of the arborescens flowers succumbed.
The other aloes are all on their way out. And the great Sarah Bernhardt, shrivelled and insignificant in death, is difficult to picture in her role as the grand dame of them all…