Aloe ferox

Bitter Aloe


Cape Aloe, bitteraalwyn, bergaalwyn (Afrikaans); Umhlaba (Zulu); iKhala (Xhosa)


Derivation of name and historical aspects

Aloe – derived from the Greek word for the dried juice of aloe leaves. Ferox – “fierce” or “war-like”, referring to the spiny edged leaves. Interestingly Aloe ferox, along with Aloe broomii, is depicted in a rock painting which was painted over 250 years ago.

Plant parts used

Dried juice from the secretory ducts of the elaves (“aloin cells”) obtained by traditional or modern methods of “tapping” and concentrated by boiling or spray-drying to form a solid (traditional product) 0r a yellow-brown powder.

Cape aloe gel powder: The inner, non-bitter polysaccharide fraction of aloe leaves obtained by alcohol precipitation and spray-drying.

Cape Aloe whole leaf powder: the total leaf, dried and powdered.

Medicinal Uses / Ethnopharmacological uses

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, eczema, conjunctivitis, hypertension and stress.

“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.

The gel has become popular as a health drink. Extracted and spray-dried leaf gel is used in skin and hair care products. Cape aloe whole leaf powder has various poorly documented uses.

Health benefits

Health benefits here. Health benefits here.


Aloe ferox is a tall single-stemmed aloe which has a wide distribution, ranging over 1000 km from the south western Cape through to southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho.

It occurs in a broad range of habitats as a result of the wide distribution range. It is common on rocky hill slopes, often in very large numbers, where it creates a stunning winter display. In the south western Cape it grows in grassy fynbos, and in the southern and Eastern Cape it may also be found on the edges of the karoo. A. ferox grows both in the open and in bushy areas. The plants may also differ physically from area to area due to local conditions – a south east Free State winter is quite different to that of the Eastern Cape coast!


An extremely common and abundant species, occurring as large stands in suitable habitat. Aloe ferox has a weed-like ecology and is a pioneer species in disturbed vegetation, and therefore land degradation in many areas is suspected to have led to an increase in the population size over the past 30 years.


Protected in many reserves across its range. Formal legislation is protecting and controlling the use of this species in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State (Van Wyk and Smith 1996). Monitoring and regulation is required to ensure the sustainable utilization in regions where this species is heavily harvested in order to support local livelihoods of rural South Africans

Botanical Description

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 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.

Preparation and Dosage

Leaves or roots, boiled in water, are taken as a laxative.

Active Ingredients

The laxative activity is due to aloin A, Aloin B and other anthracene components.

Pharmacological Effects

Cape aloe is a stimulant laxative that irritates the mucous membranes of the colon, resulting in an increase in the secretion of mucous and hence the stimulation of peristalsis.


Least Concern 2012/05/15


Aloe ferox is a medicinal plant of high commercial importance. In some areas overexploitation and destructive harvesting of leaves have caused localized extinctions. However, most commercial produce is harvested from cultivated individuals, and this species is extremely common (Van Wyk and Smith 1996). 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 past 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.

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