|By Jay White
When I was young, my mother (and all the other mothers on our block) kept a pot of Aloe vera on the back porch. Every time I got a sunburn, my mom would go outside and snap off a couple of leaves from her plant and use the cool, viscous fluid that oozed out of the leaves to sooth the burn. While the Aloe vera “juice” worked great on my burns, I think it slanted my view of the plant. In my mind, Aloe vera was a medicine that my mother kept outside. I never really learned to think of it as an ornamental plant.
This past spring, I discovered (in a very big way) that Aloe vera (and the family aloe to which it belongs) is much more than a really good natural treatment for sunburn. My wife is a second-grade teacher. Each year during her Spring Break, we load up the car and explore the botanical bounty of our great state. Last year we headed to the Rio Grande Valley to explore Hilltop Gardens in Lyford, Texas. Hilltop is the only botanical garden in the Valley and it features the largest public collection of species aloes in the U.S. Hilltop Gardens sits on the oldest commercial Aloe vera farm in America. The company that owns the farm is the market leader in aloe production. Because of their success, growing and transforming the Aloe vera plant into a variety of health and beauty products, they decided to build a beautiful place to showcase the beauty and variety of the plant family that has been so good to them.
To reach the garden you drive down a palm-tree-lined road that flanks acre after acre of Aloe vera plants. During this short drive I realized my knowledge of Aloe vera was about to be turned on its head. The Aloe vera I have grown up with is a spiky, 18” tall succulent grown in a pot. The Aloe vera in the fields of Hilltop Gardens were massive plants whose spiky leaves were three feet tall. And, to my surprise, they were blooming! I have had Aloe vera my entire life and I have never seen it bloom.
Sally and I were greeted by garden director Paul Thornton. Paul has spent his life bringing botanical beauty to the masses by working in several public gardens throughout his career. He was hired to run the gardens of Hilltop before the gardens even existed. Because of his intimate involvement with all aspects of this garden, Paul has become somewhat of a disciple of Aloe vera and the aloe family. As part of his duties he regularly leads tours of the gardens that he loves so much. He is a walking encyclopedia of aloe knowledge.
While Paul was showing us through the gardens I asked why my Aloe vera never bloomed and why it looked so different from the Aloe vera that I had seen in the field. Paul smiled and explained that most home gardeners grow Aloe vera in pots. Container-grown aloe is often constrained by the size of the pot or the number of plants in the pot. Because of this, container-grown aloe will never get big enough to bloom. If you want your aloe to produce the lovely flower spikes I observed, you will need to plant it in the ground. The plants need to be spaced two to three feet apart. They are not picky about soil type as long as it is well draining. It also requires full sun and a two- to three-year growing season. Because of this, you will have to protect it from freezes in most of the state. However, if you take the effort to bring it to bloom, you will be rewarded with large clusters of yellow flowers that are attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. In addition, the flower petals can be dried and used to make a very nice herbal tea.
In addition to the Aloe vera growing tips, Paul filled us in on the interesting history of the plant. According to Paul, Aloe vera has been used as a healing agent for centuries. In fact, it is mentioned several times in the Bible. There are also carvings of aloe in the Egyptian pyramids. Paul said, “Aloe’s health benefits have been known and used for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians called it ‘the immortal plant’ and they offered it as a gift to their deceased pharaohs.” I also found it interesting that even though Aloe vera has been used as a healing agent by humans for a very long time, we don’t really know where it came from. Aloes are native to Africa and parts of Arabia. However, the plant that we know as Aloe vera is not found anywhere in the world in a wild state; it only survives now in cultivation.
The 12-acre botanical garden at Hilltop Gardens is an award-winning healing garden (Award of Merit, Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects) and is part of a large and diverse commercial farm that has been an agricultural mainstay in the Rio Grande Valley since the waning days of the Depression. Hilltop Gardens began in 1939, when Sherman and Lee Ewald bought 100 acres to use as one of the first commercial Aloe vera farms in the U.S. Mrs. Ewald was a pioneer and visionary who revolutionized commercial aloe production in the Valley. One day, while working on the farm, Mrs. Ewald witnessed a farmhand use an aloe leaf to treat a machete cut. She was amazed that the application of the aloe allowed the man to quickly return to work. This incident sparked an idea that led to her partnering with her chemist daughter, Phyllis Schmidt, and physician Harriet Ann Bates. Together, they began making cosmetics using Aloe vera gel. In 1962, the three incorporated and began selling their cosmetics under the brand name Phyllis Ann Lee Sales. This made Hilltop Gardens the first business ever to use Aloe vera as an ingredient in cosmetics.
Today, Hilltop Gardens is situated in the middle of an active and varied organic growing operation that produces a lot more than just Aloe vera. The original 100 acre farm has now grown to include 720 acres. In addition to Aloe vera, the farm produces a variety of organic vegetables in accordance with organic and Global GAP (Good Agriculture Practice) guidelines.
Five hundred acres of the historical farm are presently certified organic. The additional 220 acres were recently purchased. They are “in transitional state” for another two years before they will be eligible for certification. Most of the 720 acres are in cultivation. Last year Hilltop Gardens grew Aloe vera, sorghum grain, hay, collard greens, kales, cabbage, beets, cilantro, onion, broccoli, chard and mustard greens, and I’m sure I forgot a few others. The vegetables are grown on contract for an organic produce house in the Valley. The corporation uses and markets all of the grain, hay and Aloe vera that is produced. All of the crops are organically grown. Hilltop fertilizes all of their crops with compost tea extracts that are made on site. The “tea” is made in a commercial unit that makes 1,200 gallons of “tea” at a time. It is applied to the crops with a PTO-driven spray unit. In addition to “compost tea,” Hilltop Gardens uses other organic practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, soil building practices and beneficial insect plantings in the fields to produce their high-quality products.
Visitors start their tour of Hilltop Gardens in the visitor center. This lovely building sits on the site of the original farm house used by the Ewalds. It now houses the gift shop and rooms for conferences and education. It also features short films that describe the history of the garden and agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley. The botanical garden consists of four distinct gardens: the Sensory Walk, Healing Garden, Children’s Garden and Memorial Aloe Garden.
As you leave the visitor center, you will find yourself surrounded by a wide array of native and tropical plants. The garden is designed to have a tropical feel, and Paul and his staff are very proud that not a single tree was removed during its creation. The Sensory Walk is designed to stimulate all of your senses. As you stroll, you will experience a wide array of plant sizes and textures. Your eyes will feast on blue-flowering plumbago that mixes perfectly with large gray Bismark palms. You will also enjoy the lovely oranges and purples of the many birds-of-paradise. You may also be lucky enough to catch the more unusual white form in bloom. The lovely jacaranda tree blooms violet in the spring and the variegated pothos ivy (a very common house plant) sprawls over the grounds and up the trees. You will notice several varieties of citrus and kumquats nestled along the way. These fruiting trees will whet your appetite and stimulate your sense of smell with the sweet smell of their blooms. As you wander, pay attention to the sounds of the garden. In addition to hosting several species of birds, reptiles and frogs, the paths are lined with several varieties of bamboo that make beautiful sounds when the wind passes through them. In addition to bamboo, your ears will lead you to beautiful streams, pools, chimes and a Buddhist temple bell.
As you stroll through the sensory garden you will notice a large and very attractive terra-cota-colored, mission-styled gate. The adobe gate that leads to the Healing Garden is flanked by giant crinums, ferns, ginger, palms and Ti plants. Peer through the gate and you will discover a serene blue reflecting pool that is surrounded by natural stone seating and raised beds filled with herbs such as basil, society garlic, Russian sage and rosemary. It also includes gingers and other plants that have been traditionally used in healing. While the Sensory Garden was designed to “pull you through it,” the Healing Garden was designed to encourage you to slow down and linger. The garden is what the landscapers call an outdoor room. The hardscape of the garden is completely flanked by large mature trees, shrubs and vines. These living walls give the garden an intimate and private feel that the designers hope will encourage you to rest and refresh your body and spirit as you contemplate the beauty and diversity of this tropical retreat.
The Children’s Garden is an interactive space designed to encourage children to experience nature up close and personal. The space features a lovely stream full of colorful fish and flanked by exotic plants such as Dutchman’s pipe. Children will be able to exercise their imaginations and bodies on the very impressive playscape in the center of the garden. There are hills to climb, raised beds to dig in and a palm forest to run through. There is also an expansive lawn where they can run and play. While the kids are exploring their garden, parents can keep an eye on them and enjoy two labyrinths that are designed to facilitate introspection.
MEMORIAL ALOE GARDEN
The Memorial Aloe Garden is Hilltop Garden’s crowning jewel. The garden was designed and collected to showcase and preserve the variety of the aloe genus. The genus aloe is widely varied, containing plants such as the familiar single-stemmed and stemless varieties that most of us are familiar with. However, it also contains specimens that range in size from grass-like succulents to the 20-foot-tall “tree aloes.” Many of these species are becoming endangered in the wild. This garden protects the DNA of approximately 200 of the 300 species of aloe known to exist.
The Memorial Aloe garden consists of twisting trails that wind through berms and hills that showcase the range of forms, colors and textures of this interesting plant family. I was truly amazed at the various colors and shapes of the Aloe vera blooms. Some species had little, traditional-looking flowers. Others had large conical heads that were covered in tiny flowers that came in every color imaginable. Some of these plants even looked like they were topped by a bright orange and yellow flame. Paul says that because they have preserved so many species, it is almost impossible to come at a time when some of them are not in bloom.
As we walked, I asked Paul which of the plants were his favorites. He grinned and said, “How can you ask a dad to pick his favorite?” He continued, “The aloe collection has proven to be a wonder. We have so many aloes that most people have never seen before, so it is always offering new surprises. They were so tiny when they arrived from South Africa. Now with two full years of growth many have matured, and they are presenting blooms that are a constant wonderment.
“We have some very impressive species that the average gardener has not seen. We have tree aloes like A. sabaea, or the Yemen tree aloe. This plant will grow to 12 feet and it has incredible recurved leaves and huge branching inflorescences. A. vaombe, or the Malagasy tree aloe from Madagascar, is a tree aloe that we have not seen bloom yet, but it has grown more than six feet in the two years since we planted it, and it can easily grow another six feet.
“Grass aloes are another group in the family very few gardeners know about. Grass aloes are tiny in comparison to the tree aloes, but they are totally cool. An outstanding grass aloe is A. cooperii, from South Africa. This plant will top out at 6 inches and has leaves and an inflorescence that would be welcome in any flower garden.”
Hilltop Gardens is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It features a 12-acre botanical garden that features the largest public collection of species aloes in the U.S. It also offers bed and breakfast accommodation in a lovely Spanish-styled mansion that features a heated pool. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children 5–12. Children under 5 are free. For additional information call 956-262-2176 (ext. 136) or e-mail email@example.com. You can also learn more about this fascinating place on their website: http://www.hilltopgarden.com/