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Nairobi District Gardener’s Notebook – January 2014
Images by kind permission of Barry Cameron

The number of Aloe species growing indigenously across Africa and the Middle East runs into several hundred and only one of these is Aloe vera. Unfortunately when the average person sees an indigenous aloe they immediately think it is A. vera and this is not possible as it is not indigenous in East Africa and in fact its origin is unknown but is suspected to have come from Arabia.

In Kenya alone there are over 60 species and the number rises to over 90 species when the three countries of East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, are taken into account. South Africa hosts over 170 species and is the richest country for Aloe species, while Aloes are also found in 24 other countries in Africa, plus several in Arabia and the islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles.

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Aloe arborescens

Aloe arborescens, a South African species used in a garden near

Nairobi Gardeners get very excited over aloes as they are so valuable for landscaping and gardening uses. They love full sun and can be used either by themselves, or mixed with other succulent plants or mixed in with any other types of plants in the border. They can also be used as pot plants on the patio, beside the swimming pool, or in strategic places on steps and paths. They are most rewarding with their architectural shapes, many different sizes and colours ranging from yellow through to pink, red and orange.They are a favourite plant for the brightly coloured sunbirds who love the nectar that the flowers offer. One of their biggest benefits is their ability to withstand drought conditions, needing only occasional water. Several species are easy to propagate from cuttings and most are easy to grow in soils with adequate drainage. They have stood the test of time in the wild and have attracted only a few pests and diseases.

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Aloe dawei, an EA species in a garden

The juice of aloes has been used medicinally for many centuries and the three most effective have been A. vera, A. ferox (from South Africa) and A. secundiflora (from Kenya and Tanzania). In addition to the medicinal uses there is a growing interest in recent years for aloe gel to be used in the production of soft drinks, soaps, hair shampoos, skin moisturising and tanning lotions and wound healing preparations. The additional demand for aloe gel has lead to

serious destruction of aloe species in the wild, especially in Kenya, due to the misconception that all wild species are A. vera, which has resulted in conservation measures becoming necessary to prevent them from becoming extinct in their natural habitat. Unfortunately the conservation measures are not rigorously enforced so that the species in the wild are being seriously depleted. Aloe farming is however becoming commercially viable and in Kenya many acres of A. secundiflora are being propagated and planted. One word of warning is that there are at least two species indigenous in Kenya which are poisonous so do not treat yourself in the wild unless you are sure you know the species.

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Aloe secundiflora, growing in the wild on Athi plains