“I think the aloe is one of South Africa’s most powerful, beautiful and celebratory symbols. It survives out there in the wild when everything else is dried.” Playwright Athol Fugard sums up the most rewarding part of growing aloes ~ most of them flower in autumn and winter, when in most parts of the country the countryside is bleak.

This also makes them a favourite with many insects and birds.

The aloe [aalwyn (Afrikaans); hlaba, lekhala (Southern Sotho); icena (Ndebele); imboma (Zulu)] is indigenous to South Africa and Africa.

We have about 155 species and they are found in their great variety of forms throughout the country.

Description

Smaller aloe zebrina
Some aloes have mottled leaves.

Aloes vary from 20cm in height all the way up to 15m trees.

The thick, succulent leaves are edged with sharp spines and are arranged in rosettes. The leaves vary in colour from grey to bright green and are sometimes striped or speckled. Very often there is no stem. Flowers are grouped in candle-like or cone-shaped inflorescences, predominantly red, yellow and vibrant orange. Modern hybrids have explored greater varieties of colours, including green, pink or white, in mostly tubular flowers.

Under the right conditions most aloes are long-lived plants. However, despite their rugged looks, they are not all as hardy as one might expect. A surprising number are vulnerable to frost for example, so smallholders growing aloes should choose species that occur in the wild in their immediate region.

Hybridisation

Aloes are interesting from another point of view: wherever different aloe species flower together in the wild one is likely to find natural hybrids. Hybridisation happens when a bird or an insect accidentally deposits pollen from one species on the flower(s) of another. The seeds that form as a result of this so-called cross-pollination hold the genetic key to plants that are different from both the parent plants. The resulting seedling(s) grow up to be hybrids showing a combination of characteristics of the parent plants.

Many of the aloes available in nurseries are hybrids.

In South Africa most aloes are protected, with very few exceptions, by environmental legislation in all nine provinces. It is thus illegal to remove plants from their natural habitat without the necessary collecting and transport permits issued by a provincial or other nature conservation authority, and consent from the land owner.

Uses of Aloes

The medicinal and cosmetic value of aloe products are well known.

Aloes are grown commercially in some parts of South Africa. There is even an Aloe Council of South Africa. However it is not a get-rich-quick crop. It’s quite capital intensive and is a rather slow process.

Aloe ferox
Aloe ferox is sustainably harvested in the wild

The Aloe vera plant is grown for commercial purposes in many parts of the world, including in SA although it is not indigenous here. The plant can be harvested from year two, but only three leaves are taken at a time. This can happen three times in one year. Aloe vera lasts for about eight years of cultivation, but then it becomes too top heavy and will topple over, after which it needs to be replanted.

Aloe ferox is also harvested for medicinal purposes.

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