#2 Aloe








Historically, aloe has often been confused with varieties of agave, both being succulents with spiky, toothed leaves, typically forming a rosette, out of which rises a thick central stem bearing flowers that can look a bit like limp lilies.[1]  Indeed, the poetical phrase, “the aloe which blooms only once every hundred years,” a.k.a “the century plant,” usually refers to Agave Americana, a misattribution noted as early as Anne Pratt’s 1846 treatise on Flowers and Their Associations, where, after correctly differentiating the two species, she abolishes the legend of the centennial blooming: “Time has proved the assertion fabulous” (161).  In her helpful Internet article, “Agave or Aloe? How to Tell These Plants Apart,” Kat Sanchez summarizes their differences, saying that agaves are typically larger, with blue, green, or gray fibrous leaves lined with sharp teeth that can reach over eight feet in length. In Mexico and Central America agave fiber is used for making rope, and of course the sugars pressed from the core of the blue agave are used in brewing tequila. Blooming only once, at the end of their lives, agaves are slow-growing in their native hot climates in the Americas and Africa, reaching maturation and flowering at anywhere from eight to thirty years under “ideal circumstances” (Hogan 112). They take even longer to mature in damp, chilly England where, according to Pratt, their growth was often additionally retarded by the plants being grown in pots (161). Aloes, on the other hand, are smaller; their leaves are thicker and are filled with a gel-like substance that has popular medical and cosmetic uses. Their foliage tends to be greener, and their yellow, red, or orange flowers usually bloom once a year.  While Pratt is right that agaves were introduced into England from the Americas, aloes were known to the Greeks and common throughout Europe; a 1751 map of the Chelsea Physic Garden (which features medicinal plants) is framed by illustrations of two gigantic African aloes (Hobhouse 112-3). According to Pratt, both aloes and agaves were widely used in South Africa as garden fences (162).


            Victorian and even modern authors do not seem to have the knowledge of plant taxonomy demonstrated by Pratt’s special interests. According to Greenaway, in the Victorian language of flowers aloes were associated with “Grief” and “Religious Superstition” (8). But these connotations are over-ridden by the myth of its longevity. Charles Dickens mentions aloes at least twice in his novels.  At the end of Chapter Eight of Martin Chuzzelwitt (1843-4), the swindler, Montague Tigg addresses the appropriately named Chiv Slyme with the reassuring but hypocritical hyperbole, “You are the American aloe of the human race, my dear Chiv,' said Mr Tigg, 'which only blooms once in a hundred years!”  demonstrating at least the knowledge that the so-called century plant comes from the Americas. The reference in David Copperfield (1849-50) does dramatize an association between aloes and grief.[2] Having visiting his old teacher Mr. Wickfield and his devoted daughter Agnes, Copperfield perceives that the vile Uriah Heep’s influence on his mentor has resulted in a certain ill-natured paranoia beginning to sour his previously generous character, tainting Copperfield’s memories of the Edenic peace he had experienced at his childhood school:

The impending shadow of a great affliction, and a great disgrace that had no distinct form in it yet, fell like a stain upon the quiet place where I had worked and played as a boy, and did it a cruel wrong. I had no pleasure in thinking, any more, of the grave old broad-leaved aloe-trees, which remained shut up in themselves a hundred years together, and of the trim smooth grass-plot, and the stone urns, and the Doctor's walk, and the congenial sound of the Cathedral bell hovering above them all. It was as if the tranquil sanctuary of my boyhood had been sacked before my face, and its peace and honour given to the winds.[3]

Of course, while they can grow to be quite large, neither aloes nor agaves are trees, and the symbolic meaning here seems centered on how long they remain inviolable, unlike Copperfield’s memories.


            Probably the most famous aloe in literature is the one featured in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude,” published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1918.[4]  Although the description of the plant – it has “thick, grey-green thorny leaves”-- could apply to either agave or aloe, the fact that it blooms “once every hundred years” is key to its appearance in the story and definitely marks it as an agave.


Original Cover of Hogarth Press Edition[5]


For Mansfield the aloe seems to embody the self-contained quality of Dickens’ trees as well as new attributes of both strength and violence.  Near the exact center of the short story (at the end of section vi) which is set in Mansfield’s native New Zealand, Linda Burrell, a wife and mother trapped in Victorian expectations of motherhood and submissive femininity, and her imaginative daughter Kezia stop to notice a large plant placed dramatically in the liminal space in the “middle of the drive” (Norton Critical Edition 96). The plant’s appearance is rather frightening; growing alone at the top of a mound, it has “thick, grey-green, thorny leaves, and out of the middle there sprang up a tall, stout stem. Some of the leaves of the plant were so old that they curled up in the air no longer; they turned back, they were split and broken; some of them lay flat and withered on the ground” (96). As Linda continues looking at it, the succulent takes on even fiercer human characteristics, being described as a “fat swelling plant “ with “cruel leaves and fleshy stem” that holds “so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots” (96). When Kezia asks what it is, her mother says it is an aloe, and when Kesia asks if it ever has flowers, her mother replies “Once every hundred years” (97).


Later, in the penultimate section, the aloe takes on even more personal significance. First of all Mrs. Fairfield, the wise grandmother, proclaims that the aloe’s flowering is imminent, setting up a tension between the possibility of new birth and the inevitable fatal result of that blooming (110).  For her daughter Linda (whose dream of a tiny bird that turns into a baby suggests that she may be pregnant), the giant cactus-like rosette begins to seem like a symbol of freedom.  Seeing that it rides on the grassy mound like “a ship with the oars lifted,” she imagines herself transported into the ship, sailing faster and faster away from the house, her husband, and her children. Confirming that there are buds on the central stem, Linda identifies with the aloe and is particularly drawn to the protective quality of the “long, sharp thorns that edge the aloe leaves,” extending her fantasy of nautical escape, thinking: “Nobody would dare come near the ship or to follow after” (111).


A number of critics have interpreted the aloe as a symbol of Linda’s fear of entrapment in the reproduction of mothering involved in domestic life.  In her chapter on “The Prelude” Kate Fullbrook calls the aloe a “spiked emblem of hatred” (84).  Patricia Moran, however, sees the plant as “an impossible ideal symbol of unity and autonomy” (110), representing a desire for a “bounded, defended self” (111). She notes that Linda’s apparent capitulation to patriarchal expectations at the end of the section involves a replication of aloes which destroys the plant’s solitary uniqueness: “I shall go on having children and Stanley will go on making money and the children and the garden will grow bigger and bigger, with whole fleets of aloes in them for me to choose from” (112).  Despite its armored strength, the special rarity of the aloe’s once-in-a-lifetime blooming becomes  part of an inevitable cycle of reproduction, a mere commodity for exploitation.


All of Woolf’s mentions of the aloe appear during the 1920’s, after the publication of Mansfield’s story, and though never developed with the complexity and subtlety demonstrated by Mansfield, there are discernable traces of a feminist sense of the aloe as a potential if deferred model of independence. Three out of the four times Woolf refers to the plant, it is in the explicit context of its longevity and legendarily long parturition. 


The first and only time an aloe appears in Woolf’s fiction is in the comically sardonic short story “A Society” (1920) which chronicles a group of women’s attempts to understand the relative failure of the institutions of patriarchy by asking questions and doing research. Here the aloe is enmeshed in a rather tangled and tangential set of associations. Reporting on her discoveries while pretending to be a charwoman at Oxbridge in order to observe the lives of professors, one of the women goes off on an apparent digression about her Aunt in Dulwich who had a collection of dozens of cactuses among which was an aloe which flowered “once in a hundred years” (CSS 128).  Unfortunately, the aunt died before the potted exotic could bloom -- perhaps a sarcastic comment on the very long time it took the women’s movement to accomplish anything.


The subsequent description of the scholar whose rooms the faux cleaner had been observing also slyly suggests that there might be some resemblance between the “ugly, squat, bristly little plants” and the dons.[6] The researcher does not really consider Professor Hopkins’ life work -- “an edition of Sappho. . . six or seven inches thick” (CSS 128) -- as anything productive, particularly since it is mostly concerned with a defense of Sappho’s chastity about which she thinks he probably knows as little as a cactus, an observation that obliquely links the cactus with the isolated self as Mansfield did the aloe. The fact that Castalia, the woman investigating Oxbridge, winds up pregnant, presumably by the very man who so defended Saphho’s chastity, adds a hilariously ironic twist to his lack of knowledge of that virtue.  If the cacti and aloe are seen to represent the long postponed flowering of masculine invention as well as feminine freedom, the new baby may represent the potential productivity of a new generation of women.


The presentation of the aloe as emblematic of a creativity so long postponed that it may never come to fruition is echoed in its appearance nine years later in Woolf’s feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own where, once again, a woman researcher becomes embroiled in a seemly endless project to understand the excessive plenitude of masculine knowledge.  Going to the British Museum to discover why the male sex is “so prosperous and the other so poor” (ROO 25), the narrator becomes overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what has been written: “for if I had first to read all that men have written about women, then all that women have written about men, the aloe that flowers once in a hundred years would flower twice before I could set pen to paper” (ROO 27).


In between these two public comparisons of the aloe’s deferred fertility with the delay of women’s progress, there are two private mentions in letters. In a 1925 letter to her friend Saxon Sydney-Turner, Woolf adopts a comically ironic tone similar to that in both “A Society” and A Room of One’s Own.  Commenting on reports she has heard of his recent, brilliant conversation with Wittgenstein, she compares the expertise of her friend’s performance to the infrequency of the aloe’s blooming:  “I have always been one of those who maintained that the flowering of the aloe, once in a hundred years, was worth waiting for. I have compared it to snow falling by moonlight. The extreme rarity, I have said, of the loveliest things is part of their charm. And this had reference to you.  . . . I have always liked the frozen water and the closed buds” (L3 212). Here the long delay before blooming is presented as a good thing, a proof of sublimity, but it is a splendor that remains separate, isolated.  The allusions to snow falling by moonlight, to frozen water, and to closed buds all associate the aloe with qualities quite opposite to fertility and are a reminder of Linda’s fantasies of the aloe as a kind of defense again reproductive entrapment. They evoke several other scenes where Woolf praises the silent winter ground as representative of a necessary condition of solitude, most especially in “On Being Ill,” written the same year as her letter to Saxon, where she claims that the sick prefer to eschew sympathy: “There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each; a snow field where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so” (E4 320).


Two years later, writing to her sister Vanessa from Rome, Woolf makes her only reference to the aloe as an actual plant rather than a literary analogy.  Her description of sitting by a Roman ruin is the only time she refers to aloes without the catch-phrase “that flowers once in a hundred years”: “Then on the other side nothing but the Campagna, blue and green, with an almond coloured farm, with oxen and sheep, and more ruined arches, and blocks of marble fallen on the grass, and immense sword like aloes, and lovers curled up among the broken pots” (L3 367). Nevertheless, the aura of habitual associations hovers around their appearance: the aloes retain their defensive quality, and their placement among Roman ruins hints at their longevity, while the presence of lovers is a reminder of their potential if postponed fertility. 





[1] The two plants are not only two different genera, they come from two different families.  Aloes belong to Liliaceae or the lily family and are native to tropical and southern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (Hogan 133), while agaves belongs to the Agavaceae or sisal family (Hogan 112) and are native to the tropical Americas from Mexico south to Venezuela.


[2] Since Greenaway’s book was published in 1884, more than thirty years after David Copperfield, Dickens’ novel might itself be the source of this association.


[3] Text quoted from the website Dickens Online: https://www.dickens-online.info/david-copperfield-page187.html. (Accessed January 29, 2022).


[4] A pamphlet 68 pages in length, “Prelude” was only the second production of the Hogarth Press and took nine months to prepare. Except for the first few pages, Virginia set most of the type herself.  In the end, however, they found it too long to finish entirely by themselves and sent it out to a “jobbing printer” for the actual printing (D1 289, n.1).


[5] Drawn by Mansfield’s friend J. D Fergusson, the cover more clearly represents an aloe: the leaves are more curved and thicker, and the plant bears a crown of flowers. The Woolfs, however, hated the illustration – Virginia wrote to Ottoline Morrell in May of 1918 that it “makes our gorges rise” (L2 244), and so it was quickly dropped.


[6] Since the short story was written in 1920, some nine years before the installation of the first greenhouse at Monk’s House, one can assume that Leonard had not yet amassed his vast collection of cacti, a meticulous card index of which is in the archives at the University of Sussex. More than two inches thick, the stack of cards records every cactus Leonard ever owned, including the date and source when and where it was acquired and each time it bloomed.  Unfortunately, when doing my research in the archives, I failed to record when this collection started and if it contained any aloe or agave – Leonard would certainly have known the difference.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...