Aloe polyphylla Schonl. ex Pillans
Common names: spiral aloe (English); kroonaalwyn (Afrikaans); lekhala kharatsa (seSotho)
Aloe polyphylla is a rare and beautiful aloe from the high Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. It does not occur naturally anywhere outside Lesotho with the exception of one record on the Lesotho border with the Free State. There are apparently also unsubstantiated reports of it growing in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg.
The most striking feature of this aloe is the perfect spiral in which the leaves are arranged. This may be clockwise or anti-clockwise. The spiral is formed by five ranks of leaves which contain between 15 and 30 leaves each. The plants are stemless and usually not multiple although they grow in dense groups. It has become a prized collector's item and is possibly also used for muthi. Due to this and the specific habitat requirements, the numbers in the wild have diminished and it is now listed as endangered. The change in the water regime due to overgrazing is also a possible reason for decreasing numbers. Natural regeneration is from seed as the plants do not form off-shoots.
The leaves themselves are broad and have a grey-green colour. The tips usually become dark, purplish brown and are quite sharp. The margins are irregularly toothed. Plants have approximately 150 leaves each, which explains the name "polyphylla".
The flowers are attractive, ranging from dull red to salmon-pink. They may be yellow occasionally. The infloresence is branched with each flower head being quite compact. Plants usually flower in spring and early summer.
Distribution and habitat
Aloe polyphylla grows in high altitude grassland, between 2000 and 2500 metres - sometimes higher - although apparently only on the more easterly facing slopes at these higher altitudes. This could be due to the cold, where it may be important for the plants to receive early morning sun in winter. The plants are sometimes also under snow in winter. The spiral aloe grows in basalt rock crevices on very steep slopes with loose rock which aids in keeping the plants very well drained. They often grow in the mist and cloud belt in Lesotho. Although soils are well drained, the plants here have a continual flow of water in the summer months. The rainfall is very high and the summers very cool at these high altitudes in Lesotho.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
"Poly" means "many" and "phylla" is Greek for "leaves".
Growing Aloe polyphylla
A. polyphylla is extremely difficult to grow in cultivation. Plants which have been removed from their habitat usually do not survive for more than a few years. It is a criminal offence to remove plants or seed of Aloe polyphylla from the natural habitat or to buy plants from roadside vendors.
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- 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.
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- Reynolds, G.W. 1982. The Aloes of South Africa. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town.
- Scott-Shaw, C.R. 1999. Rare and Threatened Plants of KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring Regions: A plant Red Data Book. KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service. Cascades.
- Tootill, E. (Ed.) 1984. The Penguin Dictionary of Botany. Penguin Books, England.
- Van Wyk, B-E & Smith, G. 1996. Guide to the Aloes of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Succulent
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
Flower colour: Red, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Challenging