Today is winter solstice, here down south. The day was warm and sunny, and brightened by the winter-flowering plants. Even though we don’t suffer from frigid temperatures I still appreciate that from tomorrow, the days will start lengthening, albeit imperceptibly at first.

Historically at least, we live in a summer-rainfall region. Some relief from the harshness of dry winters arrives in the form of the winter-flowering aloes. Their flowers bring food to pollinators, birds and other creatures.

In our garden we have two freely flowering aloes. One is the easy-going Fence Aloe (Aloiampelos tenuior – previously Aloe tenuior), with its slender sprawling branches, and long slender flowers. In the wild they find support on neighbouring vegetation. In gardens they are often grown on fences, hence their name.


Our winter-flowering Fence Aloe (Aloiampelos tenuior) was trained simply by winding it between the wires to climb the fence of our cats’ garden

In the wild, the Fence Aloe grows from sea level through to the mountains in a variety of habitats through much of the southern and eastern regions of South Africa. The flowers on the plants in our garden are a cheerful yellow. Forms with orange or red flowers also occur naturally.

The scientific name for the Fence Aloe used to be Aloe tenuior. However, with a revised classification of the genus Aloe in 2013, a genus for climbing aloes was added. The name Aloiampelos means ‘climbing aloe’. The tenuior part of the name refers to the slender branches.

The Fence Aloe is primarily pollinated by bees, but butterflies and birds are also attracted to the flowers.


A Streaky-headed Seedeater, in the glare of the midday sun, attracted to our garden to eat the flowers of the Fence Aloe


In this close-up of Fence Aloe flowers are two kinds of pollinator, a honeybee on the left, and on the right a tiny bee that is native to southern and eastern Africa

I spent some time trying to identify the tiny pollinator in the photo above. I wondered if it was a wasp masquerading as a bee, but I think it is a species of solitary bee named Allodapula variegate. The information I could find on this little bee is sparse, but I gather that it makes a nest for its larvae in hollow stalks or dead wood.

The Fence Aloe is easy to grow. If it needs trimming back, any cuttings stuck in the ground take root easily. Its slender gracefulness and cheerful flowers brightened up my private celebration of winter solstice this morning.


The Fence Aloe extending high above the fence that supports the base of the plant. With some support it can grow to a height of about 3 metres

Rather more showy, is the Krantz Aloe (Aloe arborescens). It is also widely distributed in South Africa (mostly in the summer rainfall areas), is adapted to many habitats and is also free flowering in the winter months. Its common name reflects the fact that it is often found on rocky outcrops or ridges.


The Krantz Aloe flowers abundantly, its flowers making a cheerful show brightening up even chilly winter days


The robust and fast growing Krantz Aloe is often grown as a hedge, traditionally around domestic stock enclosures

This South African aloe is cultivated across the world. It was one of the first aloes collected by Dutch settlers in the Cape, and it was taken to Holland and grown in Amsterdam as far back as 1674. Its scientific name, Aloe arborescens, suggests that it is tree-like, but the arborescens part of the name was conferred with reference to its stem-forming habit.


A flower spike of the Krantz Aloe in the early stages of its development. Orange is the most common colour, but a yellow form is also found

Many aloe plants are known for their medicinal properties. Traditionally in South Africa decoctions from the leaf of the Krantz Aloe have been used medicinally. Extracts from the leaves have been found to have wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties, and anti-ulcer, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-diabetic effects. Gel from the leaves is used to treat burns and wounds. It was used to treat irradiation burn wounds on victims of the atomic bombs exploded in Japan in World War II.


The fully opened flowers of the Krantz Aloe provide nectar for honey bees and other pollinators


The flowers are also sought out by sunbirds, including this Double-collared Sunbird

So, as today is winter solstice, in the southern hemisphere from tomorrow we can theoretically at least begin the countdown to spring, even though the usually colder winter months are still ahead of us. We can only hope that spring brings with it the rains that are so desperately needed in many of the summer-rainfall regions of the country.

Sources: Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza;  South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). 2001 updated 2004. Aloe arborescens.;  South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). 2002, updated 2016. Aloiampelos tenuior.

 Posted by Carol

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