This is one of the best-known South African plants with a long history of medicinal use. An attractive form of Aloe ferox is found in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly between the midlands and the coast in the Umkomaas and Umlaas river catchment areas. This used to be known as A. candelabrum and has subsequently been included in the species.
The bitter aloe will reach 2-3 metres in height with the leaves arranged in a rosette. The old leaves remain after they have dried, forming a “petticoat” on the stem. The leaves are a dull green, sometimes with a slightly blue look to them. They may also have a reddish tinge. The A. candelabrum form has an elegant shape with the leaf tips curving slightly downwards. The spines along the leaf edge are reddish in colour. Spines may also be present on the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves as well. Young plants tend to be very spiny.
The flowers are carried in a large candelabra-like flower head. There are usually between five and eight branches, each carrying a spike-like head of many flowers. Flower colour varies from yellowy-orange to bright red. A. candelabrum has six to twelve branches, and the flowers have their inner petals tipped with white.
Flowering occurs between May and August, but in colder parts of the country, this may be delayed until September. This aloe forms a beautiful display and attracts many bird species such as sunbirds, weavers, glossy starlings and mousebirds. Insects also visit the flowers which in turn brings yet more birds to your garden. In natural areas, monkeys and baboons will raid the aloes for nectar. Visitors usually leave adorned with large patches of pollen, often causing confusion amongst birdwatchers! It is an excellent garden specimen plant and is adaptable to many conditions.
The bitter aloe is most famous for its medicinal qualities. In parts of South Africa, the bitter yellow juice found just below the skin has been harvested as a renewable resource for two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product 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.