I am having a big problem with my aloe vera plant and I’m really hoping you can help. I’ve even asked the garden centers at Home Depot and Lowe’s, but no one seems to have any answers for me. My problem is that the leaves are turning reddish-brown and curling inward. Right now, I have it in part shade and part sun. I water every three to four weeks. I’m wondering if this is a sunlight problem or if it is time to fertilize? What would you recommend to help the plant? Am I not watering enough? Any advice you could offer me would be more than appreciated.
— Alison Lerch, West Sacramento
According to UC master gardener Maria Schiffler, aloes are flowering succulent plants. There are more than 250 species of aloes in the world, most of them native to Africa. The most commonly known is the aloe vera. This popular succulent is renowned for its medicinal qualities. The clear gel inside the leaves is used to relieve burns, sunburn, frostbite, psoriasis, cold sores and other skin irritations.
But what’s ailing your plant? You are experiencing some common problems of aloe vera:
• Leaves lie flat instead of upright: Usually because of insufficient light.
• Leaves are thin and curled: It’s not being watered enough and is using up its own liquid.
• Leaves are brown: Too much direct sunlight.
• Very slow growth: High-alkaline soil or water; too damp for too long; not enough light; or too much fertilizer.
First, check the bottom of the pot for overgrown roots. If it is root bound, transplant to a larger pot with a drainage hole (good drainage is important for aloe vera). Choose a container that is the next size larger; for example, if the old pot is 6 inches, move up to 7 or 8 inches — not 12 inches.
When it is root-bound, the plant will seem top heavy. Remove new shoots or “pups” when they are 3 to 4 inches high and replant them in their own pots. If you do not, they will suck life from the mother plant. Signs of this happening: The mother plant will get bright green and spread its leaves horizontally rather than vertically.
Plant the pups in sandy-gritty soil that drains quickly, such as a basic cactus mix or a homemade mixture of one-third each of sand, soil and pumice or gravel. Cover up to the top of the root ball.
Do not water a newly potted aloe for a few days. Allow time for broken roots to seal themselves and time for the plant to get used to its new home. Water lightly at first, and then once established, give it a good watering every two weeks. Let soil dry out completely before watering again.
Do not let aloe sit in overly moist conditions. Aloes do not like to be cold or wet. From April to October, water regularly. During the rest of the year, water twice a month. Aloe can go months without water.
The sign of too much sun is orange discoloration or brownish spots on the leaves. (That may explain the reddish patches on your plant’s leaves.) Choose a location in indirect light.
Aloe plants will freeze and need some TLC in winter; make sure to protect it during frost dangers.
If using aloe vera to soothe skin, harvest leaves as you need; the plant quickly seals and heals it wound. But remember: The leaf will not grow back. Choose the leaves closest to the ground, as they are the most mature and most potent.