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Often lost among the approximate 400 species of flowing plants in the Aloe genus, Aloe saponaria is often mistaken for the more common Aloe vera plant. Also known as soap aloe, African aloe or even zebra aloe, this species is native to Africa, like most aloe plants. It can, however, be found in warm, arid climates throughout the world as a hardy, easy-to-maintain landscaping ground cover.
According to the University of Arizona Extension, hummingbirds are especially attracted to the distinctive flowers of Aloe saponaria. From the center of low clusters of characteristically barbed aloe leaves, long, purple-colored stems form rosettes at the top with clusters of coral, red and yellow tubular flowers. This evergreen typically blooms throughout spring and early summer. The center stems often reach as long as 2 feet (about 0.6 m).
The Aloe saponaria does not require much special care, in its native or host climates. Supplemental water may help during dry spells, but natural rainfall is typically sufficient. These plants are native to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, so arid, sandy and rocky conditions are its specialty. Freezing weather, however, could spell danger. Though they thrive in full sunlight, most types of aloe survive in the partial shade too.
The Aloe saponaria plant derives its name from the Latin word for soap. When its spotted, spiky leaves are split open and the juice that bleeds out forms bubbles in water. It has long been used as a soap, both in native Africa as well as in specialty soaps sold across the globe. In concentrated form, however, the sap from this plant could irritate the skin, as opposed to the medicinal aloe vera plant that can be used to ease sunburn and moisturize dry skin.
This type of aloe plant closely resembles several other types. Aloe species from aristata and arborescens to sophie and rauhli each share many characteristics, particularly the arrangement of their barbed leaves. Aloe saponaria, however, is marked by a rose-colored tinge to its leaf tips as well as the distinctive arrangement of its flowers.
Landscaping plans for sandy or rocky soil often include plants like Aloe saponaria. They can grow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hardiness zones 8 through 11. This means they could potentially thrive in the dry deserts of the American West as well as they could if planted along the rocky shore of Southern California or the sandy shores of Florida.