Aloes Brighten Up Bleak Days

©Dr Katy Jonhson

At a time when almost every other plant seems to be shedding its leaves and colour has been drained from the bush, aloes are thriving.

If you drive in to any of the Kruger National Park (KNP) rest camps in winter, you cannot help but notice the buzz of activity surrounding the aloes, as sunbirds, orioles, bulbuls and all manner of insects feed from this important source of winter nectar.

The striking architecture of the aloes' fleshy leaves and the direct contrast between their delicate flute-like tubular flowers and the spines running along the leaf edge is a photographer's favourite to countless visitors in Kruger.

The white fleshy inners of aloe leaves are the not so secret ingredient in many modern day beauty products. Aloes have a long history as a beauty aid, Cleopatra herself was believed to apply aloe gels as part of her beauty regime.

The aloe pulp from the leaves is simply crushed to form the gel that is the base for numerous hair and skin care products, from suntan lotions to acne ointments. Making what was once the beauty secret of a queen, now readily available to women all over the world.

What makes aloe so attractive to the cosmetic industry is the mixture of amino acids, minerals, organic acids and biologically active enzymes in aloe gel that gives the gel its cosmetic properties and with the move from artificial chemical based cosmetics to natural alternative the demand for aloes is just getting bigger.

Medicinal Properties of Aloes

It isn't just the cosmetic industry where aloes are in demand. The medicinal properties of aloes, in particular aloe vera, have been known for centuries. Alexander the Great was believed to have conquered the Island of Socotra to gain control over the main supply of aloetic medicine and the ancient Egyptians as far back as 6000 years ago named the aloe as the plant of immortality.

In fact the aloes have been used across the globe for centuries, thanks to their healing properties - modern science has validated these ancient beliefs time and time again - although immortality might be a stretch too far, even for aloes.

One of the biggest medicinal uses of aloes in history has been in the treatment of burns, wounds and blisters. Science has shown that aloe extracts contain six different natural antiseptics, killing a range of disease carriying pathogens from molds to funguses, bacteria to viruses.

Aloe gel has also been used to reduce tissue damage from frostbite, help reduce bruising and even as a cure for eczema. While aloe extracts in the form of a tonic are believed to lower blood pressure, reduce irritable bowel syndrome and even help asthma suffers.

Researchers are now studying the properties of aloes, to see whether it can be used as a cure for some cancers in humans and it has already been passed by the US department of agriculture in the treatment of soft tissue cancer in animals. Probably the biggest breakthrough however has been in the treatment of Aids, where aloe extract has been shown to intensify and activate the immune system, doubling killer and helper T-Cells in merely three weeks.

These cells are crucial in the patients fight against the illness and as such in Europe it has been approved as a form of treatment. Showing that perhaps aloe really is 'the wand from heaven' native Americans believed it to be.

For rural communities in the West Indies, East Africa, and Northwest India, aloe vera really is a wand from heaven financially, as the high demand for aloe products and ease of propagation of aloes make them an important source of income in these countries.

While aloe vera is the best known of the aloe family, here in South Africa the bitter aloe (A.ferox) is its equivalent, with very similar medicinal properties. Traditionally bitter aloe has been used as a purgative drug.

It is commonly known as Cape aloes and is a major ingredient for various traditional medicines. It is still collected by some using traditional techniques where a hole is dug and animal skins are used to line it. Harvested leaves are stacked around the hollow with the cut surfaces facing inwards so the juices can be collected. This is then boiled till it solidifies to form a dark brown solid known as the aloe lump, which contains the active compound aloin.

To be considered a medicinal product it has to contain at least 18 percent aloin, especially as now the majority of Cape aloe products are exported to Europe where it is used as a laxative. In some provinces A. ferox is protected by legislation to ensure that overexploitation from careless harvesting doesn't lead to localized extinction. It is quite common and flourishes in a wide range of environmental conditions from the dry Karoo to the relatively wet Southern Kwazulu-Natal.

Unfortunately the majority of aloes do not share this good fortune. Urbanization, industrial expansion, agricultural development and mining have resulted in a huge amount of habitat loss and as a result many aloes have become endangered, some critically. Extensive collection, especially of rarer aloes is also a big issue and for most aloes there is now legislation making it illegal to remove plants from their natural habitat without collectors' permits.

Collectors benefit from the numerous nurseries around South Africa which specialize in succulent or indigenous plants, like Skukuza Nursery in Kruger. Here all number of aloes can be sourced, without threatening the wild populations.

At Skukuza nursery A.marlothii a tall aloe growing up to four meters is a favorite of visitors and can be seen in many of the rest camps. They also have two forms of ground aloes A.chabaudii and A.parvibracteata that are also incredibly popular.

"People like aloes because they are easy to propagate and you don't need green fingers to grow them" explains nursery curator Michelle Hofmeyr, "Suckers or cuttings can be used to grow new plants and as long as they are planted in nutrient rich soil they need very little attention, The best thing about aloes is that they are the ultimate water wise plant. They can tolerate long periods of drought; however that is not to say you should totally withhold water from them. They actually thrive if adequate water is provided in the right season".

Michelle hopes to start growing all the aloe species found in Kruger at the nursery and with the aloes currently costing a mere R35 no garden should be without one.

By Dr Katy Jonhson

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Kruger National Park - South African Safari