A post on the Ashburton Aloe Festival back in July 2017 (Aloes and gardens, samangos and forests) featured a small potted Aloe ferox (bitter aloe) that we bought at the festival. I said then I might post an update on its progress – so here it is as this winter it flowered for the first time.

Here is the small Aloe ferox that we bought four years ago at the Ashburton Aloe Festival in the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy not far from Pietermaritzburg. (See this link for details of events this weekend –  4 & 5 September 2021 – at the Ashburton Aloe Spring Festival.)

And here is the same Aloe ferox happily established in our garden one year and nine months later in May 2019

And here it is rather less happily having been damaged by hail in a severe hailstorm that took place in November 2020

Ouch! One of the fleshy leaves showing hail-stone-shaped damage.

Like several other species of aloe, the fleshy leaves of Aloe ferox are used medicinally. A bitter juice is exuded from cut leaves and the juice is concentrated by boiling to produce ‘Cape aloes’, which is used medicinally as a laxative and is also exported to be used in medicines such as ‘Schweden bitters’. Powdered ‘Cape aloes’ is also used in topical ointments, and crushed leaves are used to treat burns or open wounds. After the bitter juice has been extracted the remaining leaf gel is used as a health tonic and to make a traditional preserve (jam). The gel is also used in hair and skincare products.

In June this year, small flower spikes started to reveal themselves near the central rosette of the thorny leaves that still show scars seven months after the hailstorm

A closer view of the finger-like flower spikes peeking out through the leaves

A week later and the candelabra structure that supports the flowers is becoming apparent

Just over two weeks on and the colour of the flowers is starting to show as they rise above the leaves

This lovely iridescent blowfly spent some time preening on the flower buds

After three more weeks and the candelabra is extending still further. The predominant KZN form of the aloe (with more down-curved leaves and fewer thorns) is known as Aloe candelabrum although it is the same species as the Aloe ferox found elsewhere in the country where it has a wide distribution in a variety of habitats. Plants may differ in appearance from region to region due to different growing conditions

The buds are evenly spaced on the flower spikes. Aloe ferox generally flowers during the months of winter, but in colder regions it may flower as late as September. The above photo of the plant in our garden was taken in late July

One week later and some of the buds are starting to open

As the flowers start opening, the protruding stamens give the flower spikes a rather shaggy appearance

The flowers on the side of the spike that get the most sunshine open first

The more flowers that open the more honey bees and other pollinators are attracted to gather pollen and nectar

Flowering in its prime – in only a few days after this photo was taken the flowers were shed

The flower stalks are now almost bare – only two fruit capsules remain. Aloe ferox can be grown from seed. As they hybridise easily with any other aloes that flower at the same time, growing from seed in a garden that has other winter-flowering aloe species may result in hybrid plants

This is what Aloe ferox plants look like when all grown up in the wild. They can grow to a height of around 7 metres (23 feet)


Alice Aubrey. 2001. Aloe ferox. PlantZAfrica. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).http://pza.sanbi.org/aloe-ferox; Boon, Richard. 2010 (2nd ed.). Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Durban: Flora & Fauna; Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Gericke, Nigel. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza.

Posted by Carol