Aloes must rate as some of the most rewarding South African plants. In winter, when the landscape is drab, their bright orange or red flowers 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.
Foreground A. thraskii x A. ferox , background A. arborescens ‘Lutea’ (pic. Esther)
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. A. marlothii from the mountain ranges of the Drakensberg, Lebombo, Zoutpansberg and Waterberg can get even older, more than 200 years!
A. 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.
Aloes, once established require very little after-care. Regular mulching with good compost, and a bit of watering now and then will keep them happy for many years. However, like most plants aloes are also prone to a variety of diseases. This year has been a particularly bad time for aloes; infestations of white scale, aloe rust and snout beetle infestations became the gardeners worst nightmare. The worst pest is the aloe snout beetle, which tunnels into the heart of the crown where it lays it eggs. The larvae that hatch hollow out the stems, so that the plants start to rot and eventually collapse. These pests and diseases can easily be killed by using insecticides and fungicides, but it should be done with care and caution as these chemicals can be harmful to the environment.