Giant quiver trees (called Aloe pillansiiuntil they were recently designated a subspecies of Aloe dichotoma) are critically endangered. Victims of plant collectors, goats and climate change, these magnificent specimens can be seen in northern Namaqualand and the Richtersveld, in South Africa's far north-western corner. They are distinctly different from their shorter cousins.

Did you know?

Quiver trees die if they receive too much water.

Of the more than 100 aloe species that are found in South Africa, the quiver tree is one of the most spectacular.

And this is not so much for its yellow flowers, but rather for its sculptural form and fissured golden bark – the very bark, incidentally, that was used by San (Bushmen) as quivers for their arrows in centuries gone by.

There are three species of quiver tree in the country: the more widespread Aloe dichotoma, the shrub-like maiden aloe (Aloe ramosissima) and the critically endangered Aloe pillansii, also called the giant quiver tree, or sometimes the bastard, or false, quiver tree. (Incidentally, in May 2011, pillansii and ramosissima were declared subspecies of Aloe dichotoma.)

The giant quiver tree has something approaching cult status, in part because it is classified as critically endangered, but also because its distribution occurs in such a narrow band.

Its southernmost range is well above the Tropic of Capricorn at a rocky hill called Cornell’s Kop in Namaqualand, in the far north-west of South Africa. (Fred Cornell was a very interesting diamond prospector who had no success in finding shiny stones but managed to have a splendid time in the vain pursuit of them.)

Ringed around Cornell’s Kop are splendid specimens – a mini-forest of 75.

Their numbers have diminished steadily, in part because of goats and plant collectors, and also because climatic conditions have affected seedling growth – or as botanists call it, ‘recruitment’.

The difference between the Aloe dichotoma dichotoma and Aloe dichotoma pillansii is that the latter tends to grow with fewer branches, is taller (up to 10m tall) and has white thorns instead of yellow on its leaves.

Its yellow inflorescences also tend to hang downward rather than stand upright. Other specimens can be found further northwards into the Richtersveld.

The giant quiver tree is perfectly adapted to minimal water and maximum sun exposure. But even this king of the desert is struggling to survive climate change.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Cornell’s Kop is nearly eight hours’ drive from Cape Town and you’ll need a rugged vehicle. The same applies to the Richtersveld, where you can also see them. The easiest place to see a giant quiver tree is at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden outside Worcester, an hour’s drive from Cape Town.

Best time to visit

The giant quiver tree flowers from August to October every year, its yellow inflorescences attracting nectar-seeking birds. September and October are also very pleasant months in the Richtersveld and surrounds. In full summer (November to March) it can be oppressively hot and dry.

Get around

At Cornell’s Kop, you can only walk, once your vehicle is parked. Since the terrain is somewhat rocky and uneven, do take care. If you are heading for the Richtersveld World Heritage Site or the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, you’ll need a 4x4 or high-clearance vehicle.

What to pack

Even in spring (September/October), the north-western reaches of South Africa, where the giant aloe is found, can be extremely hot. Come with sunblock, hats and light clothing. Conversely, being a desert, the temperature drops at night, so bring warm clothing too.

Where to stay

The town of Eksteenfontein has good budget accommodation – as do Khuboes and Lekkersing. You could also stay at the Richtersveld National Park, which offers camping as well as self-catering chalets. Port Nolloth is another option, where you can pick from a wider variety of guest houses and a hotel.

Best buys

You should under no circumstances buy any seedlings of quiver trees, giant or otherwise, even if they do seem legal and from a nursery. They are endangered and besides, you’ll need a special permit to cross borders with these plants.