Many years ago when we lived in Zimbabwe we frequently visited Ewanrigg Botanical Garden, about 29km north of Harare, famed for its wide collection of aloes and cycads. As a young novice gardener I found the aloes fascinating. The then curator gave us 39 different species, all of which found a new home in a sunny place on a koppie in our garden. Ever since I have always liked the structural elements of the plants, their easy cultivation and their ability to attract lots of birds. Since we left Zimbabwe 43 years ago, I have had lots of different styles of gardens, mostly in a soft ‘English’ style: however, there was never an appropriate place for aloes or succulents as their strong lines conflicted with the softness of the gardens
We recently renovated our swimming pool, constructed a stone wall behind the pool, and extended the paving. The space now has a more mediterranean feel, and is a more sundrenched and hot. I had to change the planting to more suitable plants that can cope with the reflective heat from paving and stones. Buxus, rosemary, salvia form the background and near the pool I planted 5 new hybrid aloes (Aloe ‘little joker’), which are thriving, rewarding us with two batches of flowers in one year! Not a lover of orange flowers in a garden, I cooled the area with blues and greys. I must admit that the lovely spikes of soft orange contrast beautifully with the stone!
Aloes must rate as some of the most rewarding South African plants. In winter, when the landscape is drab, their bright orange or red inflorescences light up the landscape. The striking flowers dripping with nectar become the social gathering place of starlings, sugar birds, sunbirds and bees, all foraging for food.
Aloes have a stark majestic beauty, and their architectural form makes them suitable in a variety of settings as accent plants. They are long lived plants, especially the larger species. The quiver tree occurs from the Namaqualand and Bushmanland to Namibia, and can live 100 – 145 years. Aloe marlothii from the mountain ranges of the Drakensberg, Lebombo, Zoutpansberg and Waterberg can get even older, more than 200 years!
Aloe barbarae, occurring along the eastern coast of Southern Africa, has recently become very popular as feature plants in parks and gardens. The height of mature specimens and the flower colour separate A.barbarae from the other tree aloes; it is the tallest of them and the flowers have a distinct pink hue.
The derivation of the genus name Aloe is uncertain, but is likely to have derived from Arabic ‘alloch’ or alloeh, a vernacular name for members of the genus, or from Greek ‘aloë’ which refers to the dry juice of the aloe leaves.
The juice of aloes has been used medicinally for centuries. It is said that Alexander the Great conquered the island of Socotra to gain control over the supply of aloe medicine! Aloe species are used to a great extend as a laxative, but also for arthritis, eczema, conjunctivitis, hypertension and stress. Leaf sap of A.arborecens and A.greatheadii is applied externally to treat skin irritations, bruises and burns; the dry leaves of A.marlothii are popular in snuff mixtures.
Aloe ferox is famed for cosmetic and medicinal products. This is one of the most widely distributed species, occurring from Swellendam to the dry parts of KwaZulu-Natal, with a few localities in Lesotho. In the Southern Cape you will also find Aloe arborescens, Aloe lineata (Riversdale to Grahamstown, Aloe speciosa (Swellendam to the Kei River), the stem-les Aloe striata, (drier parts of the Western and Eastern Cape) and the spotted Aloe maculata, (Western and Eastern Cape Province).
Most of the aloes in South Africa are protected by environmental legislation. It is therefore illegal to remove plants from their natural habitat without the necessary permits. Fortunately Aloe breeders have created some very exciting new hybrids which are now freely available in local nurseries and garden centres.