Maverick Life


Aloe ferox — the Karoo’s winter soldiers

Aloe ferox — the Karoo’s winter soldiers
The Aloe ferox, or Bitter Aloe, the exclamation mark of the Eastern Karoo veld. (Photo: Chris Marais)

When the landscape turns cold, bleak and often snowy, the Aloe ferox lifts its bright spears of red flowers all across the southern Karoo.

Everywhere you go along the southern edges of the Karoo, a slow-blooming colour splash straddles the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, brightening every north-facing hillside with colonies of ferocious thorn-lined leaves, upright and motionless against winter’s icy winds.

They stand proud in the early morning mist, like regiments of red-coated foot-soldiers awaiting the call to charge.

The flowering warriors

So war-like do they look, that there are records of British soldiers shooting them to pieces where they stood in silhouette on ridges surrounding Makhanda (previously known as Grahamstown). They were, according to legend, mistaken for red-blanketed Xhosa forces.

Basil Mills of Makhanda is a font of knowledge on wild things, Eastern Cape Frontier War battles and more. He works with Amazwi (Southern African Museum of Literature) in Makhanda and says:

“The amaXhosa have legends about the Aloe warriors that spring up from the Earth by the thousand. Their spears are the flowers, their leaves are their shields, and the stems are their bodies.”

Adding to the illusion is the fact that Aloe ferox are generally single-stemmed and a little taller than a human. But their only weapons are the hooked, spiky thorns edging gracefully recurved leaves, the reason they were named ferox.

aloe ferox

At a distance, in the mist and in silhouette, they can look like Xhosa soldiers. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The nectar bar is open

Come the cold months, Aloe ferox plants that have been on summertime guard duty send up festive candelabra-like branches with tightly packed cylinders full of sweetness. These inflorescences turn from green to chilli-red in a matter of weeks. Then, in slow motion from bottom to top, the flowery minarets ripen and the stamens spill out. 

The nectar bar is open. 

Bees and sunbirds fuss over them, greedy for the midwinter sweetness. Monkeys and baboons scamper about, picking the flowers and stealing the nectar. The reddish pollen sometimes leaves telltale lipstick stains on their little faces. 

Decades ago, the appearance and disappearance of Aloe flowers indicated the start and end of the Eastern Cape hunting season.


Sunbirds and sugarbirds dote on the winter flowers. Image: Chris Marais

Stamens spill out of the flower-minaret from bottom to top, offering sweet energy when it is most needed. Image: Chris Marais

Stamens spill out of the flower-minaret from bottom to top, offering sweet energy when it is most needed. Image: Chris Marais

Kudu-nibbled aloes with the Tandjiesberg mountains south of Graaff-Reinet behind them. Image: Chris Marais

Kudu-nibbled aloes with the Tandjiesberg mountains south of Graaff-Reinet behind them. Image: Chris Marais

Read more in Daily Maverick: A botanist watches evolution and extinction play out in Richtersveld 

This instantly recognisable plant can be found almost everywhere in the Eastern Cape, and road trips become photographic Aloe safaris. 

Insider tip: they look particularly splendid on the routes between Cradock, Cookhouse, Makhanda, Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Somerset East, Willowmore, Jansenville and Steytlerville, especially in June and July. 

Everywhere, they occur in small and large colonies, silent sentinels clustered together in companionable groups, or red punctuation marks against snow on ragged peaks. There is a particular magic to being in the company of Aloes, witness to the life they attract in the death of winter. There are sunbirds by the dozen and bees by the billion, here to drink up energy.

If one has a more military bent, then it’s like being in the middle of a military ceremony, like a silent Changing of the Guard outside Kensington Palace in London. 

Except that there is fresh cold air blowing straight off the Sneeuberg Mountains, and there’s not a single tourist with a selfie stick in sight.

Eastern Cape aloes do grow in the most photogenic places. Image: Chris Marais

Eastern Cape aloes do grow in the most photogenic places. Image: Chris Marais


Along the N10 south of Cradock, Aloes stand as thick as quills on a porcupine. They favour north-facing hills. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There is time to take photographs, to admire the narrow florets, to listen to the bees, bokmakieries and chanting turtle doves, to hear the crunch of one’s own feet and a bird’s wings overhead.  

Sometimes Aloes occur at a stately distance from one another. In other areas, they cover the earth as thickly as porcupine quills. In winter, the chilli red of their flowers transforms entire north-facing hillsides.

The healing aloe

Beauty and proud mien aside, this is the prince among South Africa’s medicinal plants. It is practically an entire pharmacy on its own.

Like the world-famous Aloe vera (originally native to north Africa and Arabia, now cultivated all over the world), it has extraordinary healing properties. For humans and animals, it is antibacterial, antiparasitic, antiviral and anti-inflammatory. It is within these fleshy leaves that the plants’ medicinal magic lies. Cut one open and almost immediately a yellow-brown bitter sap starts oozing out – the source of its common name, Bitter Aloe. For thousands of years, this substance, which dries to a dark crystal, has been used as a laxative and detoxifier.

It, along with the fresh white gel in the middle of each leaf, is the first and best treatment for burns. 


Heraldic, stoic symbols of the Eastern Cape Karoo, Bitter Aloes appear on the province’s Coat of Arms and its licence plates. (Photo: Chris Marais)


Elephants love knocking Aloes down. We would not have these ‘thickets of Aloes’ in the Eastern and Western Cape if the elephants still roamed free, according to botanists Richard Cowling and Shirley Pierce. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Aloes and humans

It was so important to the San and Khoi that Aloe ferox is the only plant to appear in their rock paintings, apart from Aloe broomii

The amaXhosa use it to heal wounds, including those from circumcision. They also burn the dried leaves to repel mosquitoes, or grind it up for snuff, according to Basil Mills. 

The amaMpondo people use Aloe juice and water as a body wash. 

For hundreds of years, Eastern Cape farmers would put a leaf of Aloe ferox into livestock drinking water as a medication against ticks and parasitic worms. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Aloe there: Getting up close with the ‘plant of immortality’

Medicinal plant book author, journalist and farmer Heather Dugmore records that the first evidence of Aloe ferox (also called Cape Aloe or Bitter Aloe) being used commercially was in the mid-1700s.

The story goes that a slave working for a farmer named Johannes Petrus de Wit showed him the age-old art of tapping Aloes to derive the medicinal bitters or ‘lump’ from the plant – which is a most effective laxative. This was then supplied to the Dutch East India Company and exported to Europe.”

It was also used as a special kind of varnish.

Peach pips used to be embedded to strengthen clay floors across the Karoo, according to the late Helena Marincowitz of Prince Albert. In her book Karoostyle: Folk Architecture of Prince Albert, she writes:

“They were placed in rows and beaten down with a wooden board to obtain a smooth surface. After six months, the floor was coated with a layer of Aloe juice; this was to keep the insects away.” 

When all is bleak and shut down for winter, the Aloe ferox flowers when its colour and nectar are needed most. They are slow-growing and can live for 150 years. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Egyptians also used Aloe sap as part of their embalming rituals, probably for its insect-repelling properties.

Studies have shown that Aloe ferox can boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, fight bacteria and fungus, and even shrink tumours.

Many swear it is effective against rheumatism, arthritis and gout. It is used for conjunctivitis, sinusitis and high blood pressure. It is a key ingredient in health tonics – notably Swedish Bitters.

Every year seems to highlight a new possible medicinal virtue. It is said that Aloe ferox gel and sap can cure everything from dandruff, acne and osteoporosis to hepatitis, herpes, shingles, bites and a dozen or more ailments. 

Wild-growing trade

By now it will come as no surprise that Cape Aloe is the single most commercially traded indigenous plant in South Africa, and one of the most highly traded botanical species in the world. 

The National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment published a Biodiversity Management Plan in 2022, noting that South Africa exports 300 000 kg of bitter-sap extract annually to Germany, the UK, the USA, Italy, Argentina and Japan. In fact, if powdered extracts are included, it’s closer to 400 000 kg. And there is increasing demand for the fleshy fillet of white gel in the leaf. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s rare plants are being poached to extinction, and the ecological nightmare is only getting worse

It is a multimillion-rand business, all depending on wild-growing plants. Yet it is, broadly speaking, sustainable. The bitter-sap harvesters (also called tappers) are invested in keeping the plants alive and healthy.

This certainly would not happen if elephants still roamed free. They treat Aloes like skittles.

According to Eastern Cape botanists, Professor Richard Cowling and Dr Shirley Pierce:

“Both elephants and black rhinos seek out and destroy tree euphorbias and Aloes. The current abundance of these plants in today’s thicket remnants probably results from the eradication of these mega herbivores by hunting in the years between 1750 and the early 1800s.”

Bitter Aloes

Bitter Aloes, which can grow up to 3m tall, have a shaggy ‘petticoat’ made of old leaves. But those that have been harvested over the years look a little ‘shaved’ in the middle. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Aloin in the sand

“As with Aloe vera, the main active ingredient of Aloe ferox is Aloin,” Andre du Plessis of African Aloe told us in 2017. African Aloe is a company based in Uniondale that specialises in harvesting Aloes for the juicy inner-leaf fillets, gel, leaf powder, juice and extracts. Every batch is carefully analysed for the active ingredients, for sale all over the world. 

“But where our Aloe ferox differs, is that unlike Aloe vera, it is generally not planted in rows, like mielies. It grows naturally wild, and it is carefully and sustainably harvested.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Quiver Trees – a succulent that would literally give an arm and a leg to survive

Although it is most plentiful in the Eastern Cape, it turns out that the Aloe ferox specimens in the Western Cape have the highest levels of the sought-after active ingredient Aloin.

“We don’t know whether it is just a genetic thing, or whether the levels are highest where there is less rainfall and the sap is more concentrated.”

South African Aloe extracts are used for cosmetics, alcoholic bitters, animal and human food including cereals, shakes, juices and energy bars. 

Aloe money

The author then headed out to where a few dozen of African Aloe’s contract workers (aloe tappers) were busy harvesting aloe leaves near the crest of a hill. Amid the kraakbos and vygies, the Aloe ferox plants stand tall and healthy.


Aloes are harvested in the wild, mostly on a sustainable basis. Image: Chris Marais

The leaves are cut with a sickle, then swiftly carried to a lined hole, where the aloe sap is collected in a tarpaulin. Within hours, each team will come to collect their sap. They are paid by volume collected. Image: Chris Marais

The leaves are cut with a sickle, then swiftly carried to a lined hole, where the aloe sap is collected in a tarpaulin. Within hours, each team will come to collect their sap. They are paid by volume collected. Image: Chris Marais


Pickers work quickly, one cutting and carrying the surprisingly heavy aloe leaves with a sickle, while the arranges the leaves so that all the useful sap can drip out for later collection. Image: Chris Marais

“We never harvest any that are drought-stressed. You can easily see when that happens because their leaves become pinkish instead of green. Also, we make sure that each aloe is not overharvested, and that enough leaves are left so that it thrives,” said Andre du Plessis.

Aloes provide work for dozens of people between Uniondale and Willowmore. The tappers are often male and female teams, the men swiftly cutting the leaves with a sickle and taking them at top speed to a tarpaulin-lined hollow where the other partner stacks them in a rising circle, cut edges facing inwards, the thorns interlocking and holding them steady. 

The yellow-brown ooze with its distinctive earthy smell collects in a hollow. Within a few hours, the leaves are removed and the sticky liquid collected in the tarpaulins carefully emptied into buckets. The teams are paid for the volume of liquid they harvest.

“The aloe money sees us through many months,” says Maryna Damons, as she arranges leaves cut by her husband, Willem. 

“These Aloes give us jobs and pride.” DM

In Albertinia, two factories (Alcare and Aloe Ferox) create and sell cosmetics and health products made from Bitter Aloes. They welcome visitors. In Uniondale, visit the Aloe Cafe to find out more about the local industry and buy Aloe products. 

This story first appeared in Karoo Space. For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected].


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