Cape Aloe or Aloe ferox – This is one of the best known South african plants with a long history of medicinal use. Aloe ferox is found in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly between the midlands and the coast in the Umkomaas and Umlaas river catchment areas. Aloe – derived from the Greek word for the dried juice of aloe leaves. Ferox – “fierce” or “war-like”, referring to the spiny edged leaves.
The bitter aloe will reach 2-3 meters tall. The old leaves remain after they have dried, forming a “petticoat” on the stem. The leaves are a dull green, sometimes with a slightly blue look to them. They may also have a reddish tinge. The A. candelabrum form has an elegant shape with the leaf tips curving slightly downwards. The spines along the leaf edge are reddish in colour. Spines may also be present on upper and lower surfaces of the leaves as well. Young plants tend to be very spiny.
The flowers are carried in a large candelabra-like flower-head. There are usually between five and eight branches, each carrying a spike-like head of many flowers. Flower colour varies from yellowy-orange to bright red.
Flowering occurs between May and August, but in colder parts of the country this may be delayed until September. This aloe forms a beautiful display and attracts many bird species such as sunbirds, weavers, glossy starlings and mousebirds. Insects also visit the flowers which in turn brings yet more birds to your garden. In natural areas, monkeys and baboons will raid the aloes for nectar. Visitors usually leave adorned with large patches of pollen, often causing confusion amongst birdwatchers! It is an excellent garden specimen plant and is adaptable to many conditions.
Aloe ferox is a tall single-stemmed aloe which has a wide distribution, ranging over 1000 km from the south western Cape through to southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho.
It occurs in a broad range of habitats as a result of the wide distribution range. It is common on rocky hill slopes, often in very large numbers, where it creates a stunning winter display. In the south western Cape it grows in grassy fynbos, and in the southern and Eastern Cape it may also be found on the edges of the karoo. Aloe ferox grows both in the open and in bushy areas. The plants may also differ physically from area to area due to local conditions – a south east Free State winter is quite different to that of the Eastern Cape coast!
The bitter aloe is most famous for its medicinal qualities. In parts of South Africa, the bitter yellow juice found just below the skin has been harvested as a renewable resource for two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product is known as Cape aloes or aloe lump and is used mainly for its laxative properties but is also taken for arthritis. The gel-like flesh from the inside of the leaves is used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound-healing properties.