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Plants: Species Collection: Aloes

While winter is usually considered a dead time as far as blossoming flowers are concerned, that's not the case at the San Diego Zoo. That's because, in addition to our coral trees, our aloe collection shoots up flaming bursts of color throughout the grounds of the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, but especially in the Zoo's Elephant Odyssey and the Park's Baja and Old World Succulents gardens, from December through early March.

Of the 10 different groups of aloes, tree aloes are the largest, growing as high as 50 feet (15 meters) in the wild. The Zoo's Kopje exhibit has an Aloe bainesii that's about 10 feet (3 meters) high.

Many people get aloes mixed up with agaves, because of their similar appearance. Both are succulent members of the lily family, but aloes are Old World plants, mostly native to Africa, while agaves and yuccas are native to the Americas. Because both genera evolved in similar desert habitat, aloes and agaves developed similar structures: most have rosettes of thick succulent leaves at their bases with no stems. The leaves store water and are often eaten by animals in times of drought.

The majority of the aloes in the Zoo's and Park's collections are from South Africa, but there are exceptions such as aloe vera Aloe barbadensis, which is native to Egypt and the Mediterranean, and Aloe dawei, which is native to the tropical regions of Central Africa.

Aloes have long been used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, and even make their appearance in legends and literature. In The Thousand and One Nights, for example, Scheherazade entertains the sultan with stories of Sindbad, a sailor who sets out to trade his cargo for precious stones, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and aloes, and ends up finding unexpected adventures. More recently, famed South African playwright Athol Fugard (who now resides in San Diego) addressed apartheid with his award-winning play A Lesson from Aloes.