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Features Benefit Plant and People

This article was first published on 20 Oct 2016.

Aloe dichotoma

Aloe dichotoma

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

Aloe is a diverse genus of succulent plants mainly from Southern Africa and Madagascar.  With over 300 known species, they range in size from small rosettes that sit at ground level to large trees up to 18 metres in height.

One of the tree aloes is growing in the winter garden glasshouse at Dunedin Botanic Garden is Aloe dichotoma.  Only a small specimen, it’s already showing signs of the unusual bark that will develop over time.

Commonly known as the quiver tree, the native San people or bushmen used to hollow out the branches to make quivers or containers for storing their poisonous arrows.  The large trunks of dead trees were also hollowed out and used as a natural fridge.  Water, meat and vegetables were stored inside - the fibrous tissue of the swollen trunk has a cooling effect as air passes through it, and keeps contents a lot cooler than the surrounding outside temperature.

Smooth branches are covered in a fine white powder that helps reflect heat away from the plant.  The unusual bark has razor sharp edges that help protect the tree from grazing animals.

Once the tree matures if forms a rounded dense canopy that is made up of many forked branches.  This is where the species name comes from, ‘dichotomous’ meaning ‘forked’.  It has yellow flowers that can be eaten when young and apparently resemble and taste similar to asparagus.

Stephen Bishop is curator of the winter garden glasshouse at Dunedin Botanic Garden.