Aloe ferox Mill.
Common names: bitter aloe, red aloe (English); bitteraalwyn, bergaalwyn (Afrikaans); iNhlaba (Zulu); iKhala (Xhosa)
This is one of the best known South african plants with a long history of medicinal use. An attractive form of Aloe ferox is found in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly between the midlands and the coast in the Umkomaas and Umlaas river catchment areas. This used to be known as A. candelabrum and has subsequently been included in the species.
The bitter aloe will reach 2-3 metres in height with the leaves arranged in a rosette. The old leaves remain after they have dried, forming a "petticoat" on the stem. The leaves are a dull green, sometimes with a slightly blue look to them. They may also have a reddish tinge. The A. candelabrum form has an elegant shape with the leaf tips curving slightly downwards. The spines along the leaf edge are reddish in colour. Spines may also be present on upper and lower surfaces of the leaves as well. Young plants tend to be very spiny.
The flowers are carried in a large candelabra-like flower-head. There are usually between five and eight branches, each carrying a spike-like head of many flowers. Flower colour varies from yellowy-orange to bright red. A. candelabrum has six to twelve branches, and the flowers have their inner petals tipped with white.
Flowering occurs between May and August, but in colder parts of the country this may be delayed until September. This aloe forms a beautiful display and attracts many bird species such as sunbirds, weavers, glossy starlings and mousebirds. Insects also visit the flowers which in turn brings yet more birds to your garden. In natural areas, monkeys and baboons will raid the aloes for nectar. Visitors usually leave adorned with large patches of pollen, often causing confusion amongst birdwatchers! It is an excellent garden specimen plant and is adaptable to many conditions.
Distribution and habitat
Aloe ferox is a tall single-stemmed aloe which has a wide distribution, ranging over 1000 km from the south western Cape through to southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho.
It occurs in a broad range of habitats as a result of the wide distribution range. It is common on rocky hill slopes, often in very large numbers, where it creates a stunning winter display. In the south western Cape it grows in grassy fynbos, and in the southern and Eastern Cape it may also be found on the edges of the karoo. A. ferox grows both in the open and in bushy areas. The plants may also differ physically from area to area due to local conditions - a south east Free State winter is quite different to that of the Eastern Cape coast!
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Aloe - derived from the Greek word for the dried juice of aloe leaves. Ferox - "fierce" or "war-like", referring to the spiny edged leaves.
Interestingly Aloe ferox, along with Aloe broomii, is depicted in a rock painting which was painted over 250 years ago.
The bitter aloe is most famous for its medicinal qualities. In parts of South Africa, the bitter yellow juice found just below the skin has been harvested as a renewable resource for two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product is known as Cape aloes or aloe lump and is used mainly for its laxative properties but is also taken for arthritis. "Schwedenbitters" which is found in many pharmacies contains bitter aloe. The gel-like flesh from the inside of the leaves is used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound-healing properties.
Growing Aloe ferox
Aloe ferox may be grown from seed. Be aware that aloes will hybridise with any other aloe flowering at the same time. Sow seed in a well-drained medium in shallow trays and cover lightly with sand or the seed will blow away. Once the seeds begin to germinate, keep moist but watch out for overwatering as the seedlings could rot. Transplant into small pots or bags once they are about 4cm high (approximately 6 months).
- Bornman, H & Hardy D.S. 1971. Aloes of the South African Veld. Voortrekkerpers, Johannesburg.
- Glen, H.F. & Hardy.D.S. 2000. Aloaceae (First Part): Aloe. Flora of Southern Africa 5(1,1). National Botanical Institute, Pretoria
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and Meanings of Names of South African Plant Genera. Ecolab, University of Cape Town.
- Jeppe, B. 1969. South African Aloes. Purnell, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1994. The Complete Field Guide to Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Reynolds, G.W. 1982. The Aloes of South Africa. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Van Wyk, B-E & Smith, G. 1996. Guide to the Aloes of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B-E, van Oudtshoorn, B & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Autumn, Winter
Flower colour: Red, Yellow, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average