Aloes and winter. These are synonymous for me. I cannot think of Aloes in flower without feeling the crisp winter air or imagining the chill morning mist. In some parts of the country, when not in flower the vast stands of Aloe ferox appear as an army of warriors marching over the hills, and when in flower their mass of deep red flowers gives the appearance of flames sweeping across the mountains.
Most aloe flowers are rich in nectar and provide much-needed sugar to
our birds in the lean
winter months. The sunbirds, in particular, delight in their sweet offerings and the bright iridescent colours of a sunbird on a flaming aloe flower is a joyous image unique to Africa.
Aloes also have important traditional and medicinal uses for humans.
There are approximately 400 different species of Aloe and while Aloe vera is a species that is well known for its use in the cosmetics industry, man has used many aloe species for c
enturies. In fact the Aloe is mentioned as a medicine in The Ebers Papyrus, one the oldest preserved medical documents dated at about 1500 BC, and also in the New Testament (John 19). The Egyptians used it as one of the ingredients in embalming fluid. Africans have also long used aloe extracts cosmetically as a hair bleach or skin lightener.
In addition to its use in the cosmetics industry, aloe is used as an effective laxative, an external application for wounds and burns, for the treatment of diabetes and hyperlipidaemia, and as an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial
and anti-fungal preparation.
In parts of rural Africa aloe ash is used as an insect repellent to protect stored grains, and the bark of A. dichotoma was famously used as a quiver by bushmen for their arrows. The roots of the stemless spotted aloes are used extensively in rural south Africa to produce dyes for wool or basketry.
So before you denigrate our winters, come and enjoy the spectacle of our unique aloes, and spare a thought for their enormous contribution to humans and animals alike.
See you in South Africa this winter!
(Photo credit: Sunbird on Aloe – Geoff Nichols)