Aloe ferox (Bitteraalwyn, Bitter Aloe, iNhlaba) is one of the best known muthi plants of southern Africa boasting a long history of medicinal and magical use. It is a good addition to an eco-garden.
Ethno Medicinal Uses of Aloe ferox
Administered to people: Zulu Inyangas use the fresh leaf juice for ophthalmia (inflammation of the eye, especially conjunctivitis). Leaf decoctions and powder from charred, ground leaves are applied to venereal sores. Ground leaves are used for snuff. (Hutchings et.al.)
Dry leaves are also used together with tobacco as snuff (icuba lokugwada). The dry leaf is first burnt until it becomes a lump of glowing red-hot coal. The coal is extinguished with water and then ground into ash which is then mixed with coarse tobacco. From this activity comes the expression lugwayi nentlaba, meaning ‘the tobacco and the aloe,’ referring to two close friends. (Zukulu et.al.)
The hard, black, resinous dried leaf juice 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 bitter aloe. The gel-like flesh from the inside of the leaves is used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound-healing properties. (Hutchings et.al.)
Applied In A Magical Sense: According to Zukulu et.al. (2012) the Pondo use Aloe ferox as intelezi (protection against lightning strikes and misfortune caused by witchcraft). Intelezi is also used for a ritual body wash called ukuhlamba ngeyeza that ensures ritual cleanliness (impilo) and prevents contamination that would cause ritual impurity (umlaza).
Edible: The fleshy portion of the leave with the outer skin stripped off, is sometimes used to make a jam and an aloe konfyt. (Fox and Norwood Young)
Caution: According to Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) the nectar is said to be narcotic and to produce weakness of the joints if ingested in large amounts.
Aloe ferox is an attractive single-stemmed aloe carrying thick rosettes of thorny succulent leaves. It is one of South Africa’s most striking aloes. With its showy features and tall erect structure it is described as an architectural plant. Aloe ferox is ideal for a focal point in a rockery and does well in containers. It is a hardy plant that requires low amounts of water and is frost tolerant and grows in full sun. Aloe ferox attracts birds and butterflies and other pollinating insects. (Wildflower Nursery)
Habitat and Ecology
Range: Swellendam to southern KwaZulu-Natal, and extending inland as far as Lesotho and the southern Free State. Highly variable, from mountain slopes and rocky outcrops to flat, open areas. Capable of thriving in the arid climate of the western part of the range as well as relatively wet conditions in the eastern part of the range. Major habitats: Albany Thicket, Fynbos, Grassland, Indian Ocean Coastal Belt. (Raimondo et.al.)
Because Aloe ferox is a medicinal plant of high commercial importance, overexploitation and destructive harvesting of leaves have caused localized extinctions in some areas. However, most commercial produce is harvested from cultivated individuals, and this species is extremely common. Heavy harvesting occurs throughout communal areas of the Eastern Cape including in the Peddie, Idutywa, Butterworth and Qunu areas as well as in some areas of the former Transkei region. Overharvesting of leaves can lead plants to be killed by fire as the plants lose the dry skirt of leaves around the stem that act as a fire defence. There has been a loss of habitat to crop cultivation and urban development, especially in the western parts of its range. Subpopulations within some poorly managed game reserves are declining as a result of overgrazing by Eland and other large game. (Raimondo et.al.)
Aloe ferox Botanical Information
Name Derivation: Aloe is derived from the Greek word for the dried juice of aloe leaves. Ferox – “fierce” or “war-like”, refers to the spiny edged leaves.
Morphology: Succulent, perennial tree. Stem simple, usually 2-3 met. high, sometimes 4-5 m, densely covered with the persistent remains of old dry leaves.
Leaves 50-60 in a dense capitate rosette, lanceolate-ensiform, up to 1 m. long, 15 cm broad at base, rather fleshy, dull green, sometimes with a reddish tinge; upper surface flat low down, slightly canaliculate upwards, varying from smooth to spiny, the spines few to many, irregularly scattered; lower surface convex, varying from smooth (except for a few spines in median line near apex), to copiously spiny throughout; margins sinuate-dentate, armed with stout deltoid reddish to brownish-red teeth about 6 mm long, 10-20 mm distant, the interspaces rounded.
Inflorescence one only, a branched panicle with 5-8 erect racemes. Racemes erect, mostly uni-coloured reddish, sometimes orange, cylindric slightly acuminate, very densely multi-flowered, 50-80 cm, long, 9-12 cm diam. at the base, about 6 cm diam. at the apex, the buds horizontally disposed and slightly laxer than the open flowers, the flowers first opening up the side (north) facing the sun.
Pedicels green, 4-5 mm long. Bracts ovate-acute, 8-10 mm long, 3-5 mm broad, thin scarious brownish, 3-5-nerved.
Perianth scarlet, sometimes orange, clavate-cylindric, slightly ventricose, averaging 33 mm, in length; outer segments free for about two-thirds their length, obscurely 3-5-nerved, the nerves reddish-orange, the apices sub-acute, spreading; inner segments free, but dorsally adnate to the outer for one-third their length, with thin whitish margins, carinate with 3 congested nerves, the middle nerve usually more raised than the other two and the colour of the perianth, turning green at apex, the apices spreading to revolute, light to deep brown tipped.
Filaments flattened, the 3 inner narrower and lengthening in advance of the 3 outers, the included part lemon coloured the exserted part (20 mm) orange to brownish-orange, eventually turning deep brown to black. Anthers: the 3 inner and 3 outers in turn exserted 20-25 mm. Stigma exserted 20-25 mm, with the exserted portion of the style slightly lighter in colour than the filaments.
Ovary 6-7 mm long, 4 mm diam., finely 6-grooved, green.
The flowering period ranges from May and June along the warmer coastal belt, July and August further inland (Cradock, Queenstown), September and October near Tarkastad, and as late as November along the Orange River from Aliwal North to Southern Basutoland.
Diagnostics: Aloe ferox is nearest allied to the Natal species Aloe candelabrum, and from a distance, they look very similar. The latter, however, differs in having longer and more deeply channelled recurved leaves, while in the inflorescence the terminal raceme stands out higher than the others. Another marked difference is the inner segment apices which are brown to deep brown in Aloe ferox and always white in Aloe candelabrum.
The leaves of Aloe ferox are more spreading than those of Aloe marlothii. The erect, symmetrical racemes of red to orange (rarely white) flowers in A. ferox differ from the usually subhorizontal, secund racemes of orange to yellow flowers in A. marlothii. The bracts of A. ferox are about twice as long as those of A. marlothii. Adult plants of A. ferox are relatively light and can be carried by one strong man. Adult plants of A. marlothii, on the other hand, are much heavier at the same size and require several strong men to lift one.
Harvesting: Harvesting is done in winter, thereby ensuring that the plant is reserved for the next season. The common method of harvesting is manual leaf cutting. Only 10 to 15 of the lower leaves of an adult Aloe ferox plant are harvested once a year. The leaves are cut with a sickle as close to the stem as possible.
This monograph contains details of Aloe ferox as per the references cited below. If you can provide any additional information, photos or reliable use records, or spot any errors, please leave a comment below or in The Muthi Flora of southern Africa Facebook group
Arnold. T.H., Prentice, C.A., Hawker, L.C., Snyman, E.E., Tomalin, M., Crouch, N.R. and Pottas-Bircher, C. (2002). Medicinal and magical plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 13. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
e-Flora of South Africa. v1.21. 2018. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
Fox, F.W., Norwood Young, M.E. (1982). Food From The Veld. Edible Wild Plants of southern Africa. Delta Books, Craighall.
Germizhuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. (eds) 2003. Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G., Cunnigham, A.B., (1996). Zulu Medicinal Plants: an inventory. University of Natal
PlantZAfrica – http://pza.sanbi.org/aloe-ferox/. Accessed on 2020/01/06
Raimondo, D., Vlok, J.H., van Wyk, B.E., van Jaarsveld, E.J. & Victor, J.E. 2012. Aloe ferox Mill. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2017.1. Accessed on 2020/01/06
Wildflower Nursery – https://wildflowernursery.co.za/indigenous-plant-database/aloe-ferox/. Accessed on 2020/01/06
Zukulu S., Dold T., Abbott T., Raimondo D., (2012) Medicinal and Charm Plants of Pondoland. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.