Many of us only have to think of this iconic plant and we’ll remember a place invariably framed by aloes…
Words and Pictures: Ian Vorster
The San artist crouched in a shallow cave deep in the Bankberg mountains. He mixed his paints in an unhurried fashion – eland fat blended with crushed sandstone – his manner conveying a sense of contentment. Looking up briefly to savour the setting sun, he began to hum… before leaning across to light a small fire of twigs and acacia branches prepared before the last rays.
His hum broke into a quiet chant of clicking sounds as he completed the paint mixture. All this while he had formed in his mind the shape of the eland – his first kill. Teasing the form from memory, he committed it to the rock in his time, and for hundreds of years to come. As he worked, he relived the thrill of that first kill, of the manhood it bestowed upon him, of the fat of the prey that brought his family joy.
When he finished the eland, he was not yet done with the painting. He added something behind the antelope, perhaps to honour the woman folk – an Aloe ferox.
There are only three aloes represented in San rock art in Southern Africa and I couldn’t resist imagining this scene, since this history of the aloe in South Africa, albeit shallow and incomplete, has to begin with the Bushmen. San religion describes a creator god, Gu/e or Tsui-Goab, who gave life and taught them which foods to eat, which were poisonous, which could be used for medicine and which were useful. The wood of Aloe dichotoma (quiver tree) was used to craft quivers for their arrows. It was also used to keep food cool, its porous bark allowing it to be hollowed out to store water, meat and vegetables inside, as well as to allow a cool draught to pass through.
As the Bantu migrated southward, new relationships with the aloe were introduced. Aloe arborescens was and still is planted around Zulu kraals to form a live fence, one that never dies and requires minimal upkeep. The remains of many of these old domestic animal pens can be seen years after they have been deserted because the aloes mark the site.
The Zulus dry the leaves and pound them into muti to protect them from storms, and a boiled concentrate is drunk before childbirth. The Xhosa people use similar decoctions of Aloe arborescens for stomach aches and add them to chicken and cattle drinking water to prevent them from getting sick. They use the bitter sap of Aloe ferox, called iKhala, to wean their babies – by rubbing the bitter gel on nipples.
Dutch sailors had periodically taken aloes from South Africa to Amsterdam in the 17th century. One such species, Aloe succotrina, provided a source of mystery for more than 200 years. Botanists formed the theory that it came from Socotra Island off the Somaliland coast. One day in 1905, botanist Dr Rudolf Marloth solved the mystery. As he was climbing Table Mountain he stumbled on a cluster of the species. The magnificent Aloe marlothii (mountain aloe) is also named after him.
The Dutch probably accumulated pre-existing knowledge of aloe use in the 17th and 18th centuries, through contact with the indigenous inhabitants. Aloe ferox was cultivated by many farmers in the Riversdale district in the 1940s, but its use as a purgative goes back 150 years before that. While the Dutch passed down its use, the arrival of the 19th-century naturalists from Europe meant that species were named according to the scientific binomial method.
Dr John Baldwin Smithson Greathead was a South African surgeon, game hunter, naturalist and photographer, and he collected the first specimen of Aloe greatheadii with Selmar Schönland during a hunting expedition to Botswana. Schönland was, in turn, the founder of botany at Rhodes University, and the Aloe schonlandii carries his name. He collected and described many of the plant groups in the Eastern Cape region, such as the sedges, woody trees and shrubs.
An early account of William Burchell at Klaarwater – Griquatown today – describes the use of Friar’s Balsam. Burchell was an explorer, naturalist, traveller and pre-eminent artist after whom many species were named. Woken early in the morning by the sound of gunfire and the cries, “Help, help,” Birchell tells how a man called Gert said, “The gun is burst and my hand’s in pieces.” Only his forefinger and thumb remained. Burchell bandaged it with Friar’s Balsam, an ointment that contained a significant mixture of aloe gel, and wrote that he hoped it would form an artificial skin.
Today Aloe dichotoma serves as a red flag for an environmental threat. Wendy Foden, a researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, reported that quiver trees are in the early stage of poleward range shift.
The trees are dying much more at lower elevations than higher ones, and they are dying far more in the northern parts of their range. The trend has been connected to rising temperatures – climate change is the culprit.
I enjoy the botany of aloes but, to be honest, it’s why and how they creep into our hearts that really interests me. I think it relates to the fact that, as we pursue an ever-increasing number of outdoor getaways to soul places, a shift occurs, and it partly has to do with what the eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan described, ‘We turn space into place through personal experience… Place is imbued with meaning by virtue of experiences we have had there …’ For many, ‘place’ in South Africa is invariably framed by aloes. Think of a favourite place and you may remember an aloe.
In my home province of the Eastern Cape, the surf spot Supertubes at Jeffreys Bay is framed by a mix of aloes, with Aloe africana dominating. The entrance to Addo Elephant National Park is framed by Aloe ferox, the Sundays River is lined with an enormous bank of Aloe africana, and to approach Percy Fitzpatrick’s grave you navigate a grove of stately Aloe pluridens.
If approached in the cooler months of the year, each of these and a myriad farms, safari lodges and country retreats across the nation boast a glorious display of red, yellow or orange inflorescence.
I know of a trail in the Zuurberg mountains that is lined with them. There is little to distinguish it from any other trail in the range. It’s uphill. It’s steep. And it also winds its way through a forested kloof to reach the summit.
Hitching a thumb through the right strap of my daypack I leaned into the gradient one evening. It took about 90 minutes to reach the top and there I rested for a while against a rock with the steep, narrow valleys stretching into the gloom before me. After a short rest and a drink, I started for the bottom.
On my way down in the early evening, I reached the kloof once again, only then noticing a giant silhouetted aloe. Haunting in its beauty, crookedly extending across the path, it was the Aloe pluridens, an evocative sentry along
a thousand trails and over a score of memories.