Saturday, November 17, 2012

Plant Profile: Aloe ferox (Bitter Aloe)

About to flower
Latin name: Aloe ferox ("AL-oh FER-ox")
Common name: Bitter Aloe
Originally from: The Cape Region of South Africa
Blooms: In fall a huge candelabra of orangey-red flowers emerges.
Light: Full sun
Water: Rain is plenty. No summer water needed.
Drainage: Excellent
Height x width: 9' tall x 4' wide
USDA Zones: 9 - 11
Where to find in P. Garden: On the cactus wall, near the entrance arch,

Also known as Cape Aloe, Bitter Aloe, Red Aloe and Tap Aloe, this species is one of over 500 indigenous species that are concentrated in Southern and Eastern Africa. Common in the south western Cape through to southern Kwazulu-Natal, it is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho. 

The Latin name Ferox means "fierce" or "war-like" and refers to the leaves that not only have spiny edges, but also spines randomly growing on each side, with younger plants being spinier than older ones. It's not even half as vicious as your average Agave, but compared to the average plant it's pretty scary looking.

A form of Aloe ferox is found in Kwazulu-Natal, particularly between the midlands and the coast in the Umkomaas and Umlaas river catchment areas. This used to be known as A. candelabrum and has subsequently been included in the species. The "A. candelabrum form" has an elegant shape with the leaf tips curving slightly downwards. 

Just planted
Our A. ferox was just a little mite when we bought in April 2009 it at Annie's Annuals - a mere 4" pot sized baby. I planted it on the cactus wall and hoped for the best, assuming it'd be quite some time before it amounted to anything. As is often the case, I was wrong. It has grown from 6 inches high, with 6 leaves, to a good 30" tall and about 50 leaves, and is flowering for the first time in 2012. It makes me proud!

Growing into a short tree, the single trunk will eventually reach about 9-10' tall. Old, dried leaves cling to the trunk as the Aloe grows, creating a crisp brown skirt that Aloe fanciers admire. Any Aloe that makes it to tree size is an object of wonder to gardeners outside Africa!

One day it'll look like this!
A. ferox is most famous for the medicinal qualities of the plant, which contains anthrone C-glucoside aloin (=barbaloin) in the leaves, and for over 200 years has been farmed for that purpose in the Cape region of South Africa.

The hard, black, resinous stuff that is produced from the bitter, yellow juice just under the skin of the leaves is known as Cape aloes or aloe lump and is used mainly for its laxative properties but is also taken for arthritis. "Schwedenbitters," which is found in many pharmacies contains Aloe ferox and has been sold for over 430 years. It was first brought to Germany during the 30 year war by Swedish troops in the 17th Century. The plant is also used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound healing properties.


  1. Thank you for the plant profile! I actually bookmark them and can't tell you enough how helpful they are!

  2. Thanks! Glad you find them helpful! :)


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