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IIn the middle of winter, in the coldest, bleakest time, a plant that warms the view flowers.
Aloe ferox – also known as the red aloe or the bitter aloe – sends up its vivid orange-red inflorescences in midwinter, dripping with nectar just at the time the sunbirds and bees need it most.
These spectacular aloes have their stronghold in Eastern Cape province, but are also found in other provinces, notably Western Cape. They love the drylands, and are found inland on mountains, in grasslands and in the Karoo.
Sometimes they occur at a stately distance from one another. In other areas they cover the earth as thickly as porcupine quills. In winter, the vivid chilli red of their flowers can change the colour of entire hillsides.
Aloe ferox are generally single-stemmed, and usually a little taller than a human, although they can grow up to 4m in height. Old, dried leaves cover the stems in a kind of protective brown skirt. The no-nonsense spiky thorns lining the fresh, new succulent leaves give them the name ‘ferox’ (‘fierce’ in Latin).
But it is within these prickly, fleshy leaves that the plant’s medicinal magic lies. Cut open a leaf and almost immediately a bitter, yellowish liquid starts oozing out. For centuries this substance, which dries to a dark crystal, has been used as a laxative.
Now it has also been found to alleviate arthritis.
The white, gel-like flesh of the leaf is also healing, specifically for burns and other wounds. In fact, the medicinal uses of the aloe are legion.
It’s said the gel and sap can cure everything from dandruff, acne and osteoporosis to hepatitis, herpes, shingles and a dozen or more ailments. Studies have shown that its properties include an ability to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol and fight bacteria and fungus, and even tumours.
A sizable local health industry has sprung up around aloes. Albertinia has two aloe-based industries that make cosmetics and food products, and at which you can see how the bitter sap is harvested. From Uniondale comes a health drink made from aloes (fortunately delicious rather than bitter).
So while you can enjoy the blaze of colour they lend to the winter hills as you drive through South Africa’s tourist byways, you can also pick up some useful products to take home with you.
TTravel tips & Planning info
How to get here
Aloe ferox are a true roadside attraction, and the N10 between Port Elizabeth and Cradock is one of the best places to see them. They are especially prolific between the little settlement of Middleton Manor and the town of Cookhouse. You could also turn onto the road to Bedford and continue from this picturesque little town on the R350 for more spectacular midwinter aloe blooms. Albertinia is along the N2 highway and is about 360km from Cape Town (about a 4-hour drive). If you’re coming from Port Elizabeth, it’s about 480km, or about a 5-hour drive.
Best time to visit
Aloe ferox flower most prolifically between May and August, although here and there you’ll find late and early bloomers. If you miss them, look out for other aloes, like the later-blooming Aloe broomii and Aloe striata (the coral aloe).
Tours to do
The Albertinia aloe factories welcome visitors. They’ll demonstrate how the leaves are tapped for their liquid, and you can wander around their aloe-filled gardens.
What to eat
At the aloe outlets in Albertinia (listed below), you can eat candied aloes – which are delicious. The African Aloe beverage is also very tasty (and healthy) and can be found in many health stores and delis.
At the aloe-product factories in Albertinia, there are stores where you can buy aloe cosmetics and health products directly, at very reasonable prices. Ask about their popular skincare ranges.
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