Aloe maculata All.
Common names: soap aloe (Eng.); bontaalwyn (Afr.); lekhala (S. Sesotho)
Although essentially a summer garden plant, it is indeed a garden plant for all seasons. There is always something of interest, even in mid winter (May-July) or spring (August, September), when the vivid red and yellow to orange flowers stand out against the background of faded dry grass.
Aloe maculata inflorescence
Aloe maculata is very variable but its distinctly flat-topped inflorescences and usually uniformly coloured flowers distinguish it from most other spotted aloes occurring in the same area. The broad, triangular leaves vary considerably in length and shape, but are mostly recurved towards the dried, twisted tips. The inflorescence (a raceme) can have up to six branches. The stalks of the open flowers are longer than those of the buds. Flower colour ranges from yellow and red to orange. Flowering time is variable, and various forms may flower in summer (January), winter (June) or spring (August, September).
It is very common in cultivation throughout South Africa. Its wide distribution range indicates that it can tolerate a variety of soil types and moisture regimes. It hybridizes readily with a number of other aloes, both in the wild and in gardens.
Distribution and habitat
This species has a wide distribution from the Cape Peninsula through the Western and Eastern Cape Province, into the eastern Free State and Lesotho, through KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to the Inyanga District in Zimbabwe. Plants usually prefer the milder coastal climates but are also found as a component of the higher altitude Drakensberg flora. They occur in a variety of habitats, ranging from rocky outcrops to thicket and grasslands.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Aloe is an ancient Greek and Arabic name for the dried juice of aloe leaves; maculata means spotted, referring to the spotted leaves.
For many years Aloe maculata has been incorrectly called Aloe saponaria. Although the var. ficksburgensis from the eastern Free State has been separated from the typical variety, it hardly warrants recognition in a taxonomic hierarchy.
The bright red and yellow to orange flowers of aloes are a rich source of nectar and attract sunbirds. In the hilly areas of the Free State National Botanical Garden the nectar-rich aloes that flower in winter and spring (September) are visited by brilliant sunbirds. Aloes do not only provide nectar, but also lend striking colour to a tired-looking winter garden.
The sap from the leaves is said to be used by people of various cultures as a substitute for soap.
Growing Aloe maculata
The slow-growing soap aloe provides an excellent focal point for a rockery garden and should be planted in well drained soil mixed with compost.
- Joffe, P. Easy guide to indigenous shrubs. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Reynolds, G.W. 1950. The aloes of South Africa. The Trustees of The Aloes of South Africa Book Fund, Johannesburg.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Smith, G. 1996. Guide to the aloes of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Free State National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Succulent
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Winter
Flower colour: Red, Yellow, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average