False aloe (Manfreda virginica) is an herbaceous perennial in the Agave (Agavaceae) Family. In the US, false aloe is found in the Southeastern and Midwestern States as well as in Texas. In Arkansas, the species is found pretty much throughout the state except for some areas of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. This species was previously classified in the Lily (Liliaceae) and Amaryllis (Amaryllidaceae) Families and some authorities treat it in the Asparagus (Asparagaceae) Family. Previous scientific names for this species include Agave virginica and Polianthes virginica. Other common names for this plant include American aloe, deciduous agave and eastern agave. The genus name is based on an Italian author named “Manfredus”. “False aloe” relates to the basal leaves which are similar to those of some plants in the Aloe Family.
False aloe occurs in prairies and upland rocky glades as well as sandy open woods where drainage is good and partial to full sun is available. The root consists of a bulbous caudex with brittle white roots. The entire plant is typically light to medium green in color, but leaves of some plants are speckled to blotched with purple. Plants are hairless (glabrous) and lower stalks are typically covered with a whitish waxy film (glaucous).
Thick, fleshy, ascending leaves emerge with a somewhat triangular shape, but over the growing season leaves become strap-like. Leaves have fine teeth along margins (denticulate) and a tapering, non-spiny pointed tip (acuminate). The margins can also be somewhat wavy. Mature leaves are 2 to 3 inches wide and 1 to 3 feet long. Leaves, in cross-section, vary from being nearly flat to gently to strongly u-shaped. Leaves quickly disintegrate in the fall.
Flowering stalks appear in early summer from the center of a rosette of leaves and quickly grow to 7 or more feet tall. Stalks are stout, bendable and bare except for widely spaced lanceolate bracts that decrease in size from bottom of stalk into the inflorescence. Bracts wrap snugly around half the stalk. Bracts in the inflorescence, which subtend each flower, are small and weakly developed. The stalks, initially erect, become arched with the weight of flowers and seed capsules and sway freely. As stalks become arched, the flowers’ orientation shift so that they open skyward, regardless of the stalk’s orientation. The dried stalks and seed capsules persist after leaves have disintegrated.
Solitary flowers, sessile or on short pedicels, occur as a loosely arranged spike on the upper third of the stalk. Although each flower only remains fertile for a day or two, with 50 or more flowers in a spike, a stalk may be in bloom for a month. Flowers consist of a whitish-green ridged ascending tube which has six narrowly triangular lobes, six prominent exerted stamens, a style as long as the stamens and a prominent inferior ovary. The lobes of the tube are about one-third the length of the tube. The long, slender white anthers are attached see-saw fashion to yellowish filaments which are minutely red-speckled. The style is similar in color to the stamens, but less speckled.
As the flower first “opens,” bent filaments surrounding one end of the anthers, push through the end of the tube. The filaments, the dominant visual feature of the flower, bear loosely attached anthers. Anthers of a flower quickly mature and fade before the style of the pistil makes its appearance. The style, too, quickly fades while filaments remain fresh a while longer. This interesting adaptation, protandry, ensures that the flower will not self-pollinate: the pollen is shed from the anthers before the stigma at the tip of the style is mature, that is, receptive to pollen.
Photo 5: Sequential flower development of false aloe. Arrow at flower #4 indicates bent filaments (green) emerging with anthers (white). Arrow at flower #7 indicates style and stigma of the pistil emerging after anthers have withered or fallen, while filaments remain showy. Stem with bracts shown at center of photo.
Fertilized flowers are replaced by smooth, rounded three-celled capsules that are about ½ inch in diameter at maturity and somewhat lumpy. Each cell has two rows of black, flattened orbicular seeds. Seed may be dispersed by simply dropping from the long arching stalks or being blown by wind.
For a garden with good drainage and some sun, false aloe may be an excellent low-maintenance showy plant. The tall swaying stalks attract attention and flower parts can be easily seen and are quite interesting. This plant is also drought tolerant. To prevent overpopulations of seedlings, seed capsules should be removed while still immature.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl