The genus Aloe belongs to the lily family and is a very diverse group with more than 500 species of mostly spiny, flowering succulent plants. The genus is native to tropical and southern Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula, and various islands in the Indian Ocean like Mauritius, Réunion and the Comoros. A few species have become naturalized in other regions of the world like the Mediterranean, India, Australia, North and South America. Some aloes are treelike, others look a lot like cacti, but all species have leaves arranged in rosettes, with or without a stem.
Aloe ferox is indigenous to the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho. Its large natural range of over 1000 kilometres forms a near-continuous band across the southern Cape, from near Swellendam northwards along the eastern coast of South Africa through the Eastern Cape to the southern parts of KwaZulu-Natal. It occurs in a broad range of habitats, both in the open and in bushy areas; like semi-arid plains, scrub, rocky mountain slopes, grassy fynbos, as well as on the edges of the Karoo. It commonly colonises rocky slopes in great numbers, where it creates a stunning display in winter when in full bloom.
Because its distribution range covers such a wide variety of habitats, Aloe ferox has become a variable species, resulting in marked physical differences, as well as variations in the flowering time of this species. For example, 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 aloe used to be known as A. candelabrum but has subsequently been included in the species.
In its wild habitat, or in frost-free gardens, the bitter aloe can, with maturity, attain a great size; and has been granted tree status in South Africa. It produces a tall, single, upright, unbranched woody stem; varying in height from 1.8 to 5m in mature specimens. The woody stem is crowned with long, thick and fleshy, green to greyish-green leaves arranged in a rosette. During the dry season and under drought conditions the leaves will take on a reddish tint. The leaf surfaces of young plants are covered in spines, but as the plant grows taller and less vulnerable to grazing, the leaves begin to lose most of their spines, except for those along the leaf margins. Old, dried leaves invariably persist on the stem, clothing it with a dense brown “petticoat” which rattles in the wind. The flowers are carried in a large candelabra-like flower-head, branched into 5 to 12 erect racemes, each carrying hundreds of tubular flowers which stand 60cm to 1.2m above the leaves. The individual flowers are about 2.5cm long and densely packed in thick brush-like clusters on the stalks; varying in colour from yellowy-orange to bright red; but many variables occur in nature, including multi-coloured and yellow and white forms. Flowering occurs between May and August, but in colder regions of the country this may be delayed until September.
Aloe ferox and Aloe vera are safe to use on pets, both topically and internally. Consult with your veterinarian about application and dosage.
Based on their medicinal properties and use in consumer products, Aloe Vera and Aloe ferox are considered to be the two most commercially important aloe species. The leaf gel of the bitter aloe does not taste bitter and has wonderful wound healing properties. It is very similar to that of aloe Vera and is used in the same way in herbal remedies, food supplements and cosmetic products. It has a cooling and healing influence because it contains glycoproteins that have a cell-proliferating, hydrating and protective effect on the skin when applied externally. Aloe gel is most powerful when squeezed directly from the leaf, as it quickly loses its potency through oxidation in storage. The gel may also be taken internally and has a soothing effect on the intestines.
Aloe ferox is most famous for its medicinal qualities and one of several Aloe species used to make bitter aloes, and used as a purgative medication. The bitter yellow juice found just below the skin is extracted by boiling or tapping, and has been harvested as a renewable resource for two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product is known as Cape aloes or aloe bitters, and is used mainly for its laxative properties but is also taken for arthritis.”Schwedenbitters” or Swedish bitters contains bitter aloe and is a traditional herbal tonic found in many pharmacies.
In the Garden:
The bitter aloe is adaptable to many conditions and makes a wonderful architectural and specimen plant for the garden. It also combines well with other indigenous plants and succulents, but allow it space to develop. Aloes are excellent garden subjects and deserve a place in all South African gardens. Not only are the plants very attractive on their own, but the annual flowering season in winter brings bright and wonderful colour into the garden at a time when colour is usually lacking. In addition the flowers attract a variety of birds like sunbirds and orioles, as well as weavers, glossy starlings and mouse-birds. Insects also visit the flowers, which in turn will attract insect eating birds to your garden. In the wild, monkeys and baboons raid the flowers for their nectar. Because most aloes can survive long periods of drought they are important elements in a water-wise garden. The bitter aloe also grows easily in containers, making it more suitable for small gardens. Also in cold climates, the pots can be moved in winter.
Because they grow well in warmer areas of the world, some of the best aloe gardens are to be found in places like California, Portugal and other Mediterranean parts of Europe.
The two most important needs of all aloes are full sun and a well-drained position in the garden. Aloe ferox prefers dry-tropical climates and open windy areas. All aloes do best in a very well drained, infertile soil, but will adapt to most garden soils which drain well. Adding some compost or other organic material to very impoverished soils will not damage the plants, but rather get them off to a good start in the garden. Where the soil is clayish and water retaining, you can plant aloes in raised beds, adding plenty of washed river sand, or a similar material which will encourage drainage into the planting mix. Site your aloes in a water-wise section of your garden together with other drought hardy plants; and where they are not irrigated with the rest of your garden. Although the bitter aloe has a high drought tolerance, to keep your plants looking at their best during very long, dry spells, water moderately by hand if necessary, but let the soil dry out totally between watering’s.
Aloe ferox is semi-hardy to frost but young plants will need protection in winter until they are reasonably well established, or they can be planted into pots. The bitter aloe is excellent in potted culture as long as the potting medium has perfect drainage. Potted plants will adapt themselves to the size of pot used, much like a bonsai, but larger pots suit this tree aloe better. In cold climates the pots can be moved to a warm, sheltered position during the winter months; and in small gardens potted tree aloes would be the answer.
Aloes are not heavy feeders and should not be over-fertilised. They respond well to an annual feeding in autumn, consisting of a mulch of well matured kraal manure or compost, together with a generous dressing of bone meal – watered in well.
When transplanting aloes, remove all dried roots, new roots will be formed after a few weeks.
The bitter aloe can be propagated from seed or stem cuttings. If sown from seed, be aware that aloes will hybridise with any other aloes which flower at the same time, and the progeny from seed will not always be the same as the parent plant. Seeds must be sown in a well-drained medium in shallow trays and covered lightly with sand. Keep the trays and young seedlings in a warm but shaded place and water very moderately. If grown under the right conditions, fresh seeds give have a high germination rate. Germination occurs in about 3 weeks, and at this point, keep them warm and water a bit more sparingly, allowing the surface soil to dry out between watering’s, or the seedlings could rot. Transplant into small pots or bags when the seedlings are about 4cm high; this could take up to 6 months. Water very lightly after transplanting and then leave the plants for a week or two without watering at all, as this will encourage them to put down deep roots. As your plants grow water them moderately, and gradually acclimatise them to full sun before planting them out into the garden. Plants grown from seed can take 4 to 5 years to flower.
Pests & Diseases:
Inspect your aloes regularly for Snout Beetles, because they are the no one enemy of all aloes; and quick and decisive action is required whenever they are noticed. Because snout beetles are nocturnal, you will not notice them unless you go out at night with a torch; so the earliest sign of snout beetle damage, even before the eggs have been laid, are unsightly dark depressions on the leaves with a puncture mark in the middle, where the adult beetles have been grazing. Two species of snout beetle attack aloes in the garden, a smaller one about 10mm long, and a much bigger one with a length of up to 25mm.These beetles are grey to dark brown and black in colour, with a very distinctive elongated head that looks like a snout. Adults target the centre of the aloe plant, where they wedge themselves between the leaves to insert their proboscises to drink the leaf sap. Once the beetles have mated they deposit their eggs at the base of the leaf, and the newly hatched larvae bore straight down into the stem of the plant, where they spend the remainder of their life cycle. If not treated, the rot and destruction caused by the larvae is what will eventually kill a plant.
Early detection and treatment are the gardener’s best defence against snout beetles. Because the beetles start feeding at the centre of the crown and then move outwards, the number of dark spots, and their distance from the centre of the plant, is a good indication of how long the beetles have been active. Many perforations away from the centre of the plant mean that the larvae have already hatched and are destroying the plant from the inside.
The easiest way to prevent and treat infestations is to drench the soil twice a year, in spring and again in midsummer, with a systemic insecticide like Kohinor or Merit. Systemic insecticides are taken up by the sap of the plant. Drilling tiny holes in the stem and injecting systemic insecticide into them is also effective for treating larvae. Dusting the plants with a powdery pesticide (containing Carbaryl,) as soon as the insects are seen or suspected; and spraying with an insecticide like Malathion or Karbaspray will also help, but unfortunately these treatments might not reach all the beetles hiding underneath the leaves; and won’t reach the larvae if they are already present in the stem.
If the infestation is very severe, and for those gardeners who prefer not to use pesticides, the only solution would be to physically remove and kill both the beetles and their larvae as soon as they are spotted. Cut off the infected stems about 20cm below the leaves in order to remove all traces of the grubs. Keep cutting off 1cm sections of stem until there are no more signs of their tunnels. Provided the meristem of the plant has not been destroyed, the leafy crown can be dried out for a few weeks and then re-rooted. The bottom part of the stem is useless unless there are healthy stem shoots. This method works best on multi-stemmed aloes but not so well for tree aloes.
Other pests to watch out for are ants, white scale on the leaves, and aphids. Fungal diseases like rust will show as fairly large yellow spots on the leaves.
Due to the abortifacient, irritant and cathartic effects associated with excessive use of Aloe ferox, it should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. The laxative effect from the bitter leaf exudate may stimulate uterine contractions and should also not be taken by young children.
The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.