The giant quiver trees of Namaqualand
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 1 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 3 quiver tree species 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.