Spiral Aloe

Description and biology

An aloe (pronounced AL–o) is a succulent (a plant that has thick, fleshy, water–storing leaves or stems), native chiefly to dry warm areas of southern Africa. It is also classified as a perennial (plant that lives, grows, flowers, and produces seeds for three or more consecutive years).

The spiral aloe, also known as the kharetsa, has a rosette, or rounded cluster of 75 to 150 mostly erect leaves measuring up to 31 inches (79 centimeters) across. These leaves are arranged in five spiral rows, running clockwise or counterclockwise.

Each leaf is egg–shaped and very fleshy, measuring 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30.5 centimeters) long and 2.4 to 4 inches (6 to 10 centimeters) wide. The leaves have rather soft white spines or teeth on their margins or edges.

A flowering shoot extends 20 to 24 (51 to 61 centimeters) inches above the plant, branching from near the base. The flowers are clustered on the shoot tips. The color of the blooms can range from pale red to salmon pink. Very rarely, however, the blooms are yellow. Flowering occurs from August through December, with peak blooms visible in September and October.

Botanists (people specializing in the study of plants) believe insects and birds such as the Malachite sunbird help pollinate (fertilize by transferring pollen) the plant.

The spiral aloe produces a large amount of seed, but it seems to reproduce mainly by sending out offshoots (shoots that branch out from the main stem of the plant to form new plantlets).

Habitat and current distribution

The spiral aloe is found in scattered areas in Lesotho, a country forming an enclave within east–central South Africa. The plant is concentrated in the Thaba Putsoa Range and the Maseru area of the Drakensberg Mountains. A survey in the early 1990s discovered an estimated 12,500 to 14,000 individual plants in about 50 areas.

The spiral aloe grows at elevations of 7,300 to 8,900 feet (2,225 to 2,713 meters) on steep slopes with loose rock. It is usually found on north–facing slopes. At altitudes above 8,600 feet (2,621 meters), it is found more often on easterly slopes. It grows in areas where its roots are kept moist in summer by a continual flow of water and where rainfall measures about 43 inches (109 centimeters) per year.

History and conservation measures

The number of spiral aloes in the wild has decreased mainly because the plants have been dug up for sale to gardeners and nurseries. With its striking arrangement of spiral leaves, this aloe is highly prized. Overgrazing by domestic animals on surrounding vegetation and the construction of roads have also destroyed much of the plant’s habitat.

This aloe is the national flower of Lesotho and has been legally protected since 1938. In the early 2000s, these protections had advanced the population of this species to the extent that it was downlisted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

According to many conservationists (people protecting the natural world), however, greater protection against collectors is needed. At best, a national park should be established in which the spiral aloe would be protected from collectors and grazing animals.