Saturday, 11 July 2015

Soap Aloe

Aloe maculata

Family : Asphodelaceae

English : soap aloe

Aloe maculata gets its common English name soap aloe from its previous name aloe saponaria  which is derived  from the Latin word  “sapo”, which means soap because the sap from the leaves makes a soapy lather in water.
Maculata means speckled or marked

Distribution and habitat
Aloe maculata is a leaf succulent found growing in full sun in grassland and on steep exposed road cuttings in and around Durban often very close to the sea. This species has a wide distribution from the Cape Peninsula through the Western and Eastern Cape Province, into the eastern Free State and Lesotho, through KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to the Inyanga District in Zimbabwe. Plants usually prefer the milder coastal climates but are also found as a component of the higher altitude Drakensberg flora. They occur in a variety of habitats, ranging from rocky outcrops to thicket and grasslands.

Aloe maculata is a very variable species that hybridizes easily with other similar Aloes, sometimes making it difficult to identify. The broad, triangular leaves vary considerably in length and shape, but are mostly recurved towards the dried, twisted tips. The leaves range in colour from red to green, but always have distinctive "H-shaped" spots. The flowers are similarly variable in colour, ranging from bright red to yellow, but are always bunched in a distinctively flat-topped raceme. The inflorescence is borne on the top of a tall, multi-branched stalk and the seeds are reputedly poisonous. They grow as low to medium growing individual plants in small colonies.
Aloe maculata reproduce by means of root suckers which are produced in profusion in healthy actively growing plants that are well nourished and are supplied with plenty of water during the growing season.  The suckers can be separated from the mother plant and planted on their own as soon as they have reached a reasonable size. Aloe maculata can also be propagated very easily from seed which are preferably planted in raised beds open to the ground.

Decorative value
This is a must have plant for every garden.
Aloe maculata plants are most decorative having medium glossy green leaves and a very neat growth habit, they produce spectacular orange flowers in profusion in mid-winter, in my garden in Mount Moreland they usually start flowering in late June the first flowers usually opening in the first weeks of July.
Aloe maculata is planted around the world as a popular landscape plant.  In warm desert regions - especially in the United States, it is the most popular ornamental aloe in the Tucson, Arizona area, and is also popular in California.
I was amazed to discover that Aloe maculata also grows very well in the cold wet conditions encountered in Auckland New Zealand

Growing Aloe maculata
This is a very easy plant to grow being able to grow under a large range of different climatic regions as well as being able to be grown in soils that range from sand to heavy clay.
Plants are damaged by temperatures below 0°C, but recover quickly. In a suitable climate, soap aloes require little attention once established.
In their natural habitat Aloe maculata are able to withstand long periods of drought due to being leaf succulents as well as having a good strong root system with a good water storage capacity.
Although Aloe maculata will survive under very harsh conditions in very low nutrient soils they do far better when supplied with a growing medium that is well enriched with well-rotted organic matter and are well watered during the growing season. A regular application of fertilizer will also work wonders.
Aloe maculata is very salt tolerant which makes them a good choice for seaside gardens.
Suitability as a green roof plant
Aloe maculata is one of a number of local plant species which are presently being tested by me for their suitability to be grown as Green Roof plants in the Durban region. Over a five year period I have found them to be excellent green roof subjects, in fact my research has found them to be one of the best plants that have been tested to date.

Pests and diseases
They are rather prone to attack by a wide range of insects which included scale and mealy bug that attack the roots, these mealy bugs appear to be introduced to the plants by ants which tend and protect them from their natural enemies. They are also attacked by leaf miner insects, snout beetles moles and mites.

Aloe Snout Weevils
Aloe Snout Weevils belonging to the family Curculionidae, the Lesser Aloe Weevil Rhadinomerus illicitus being a particularly destructive specie
The Aloe Snout Weevil is grey, dark brown to black in colour. They are between 15mm-25mm in length. The adult Aloe Snout Weevil feeds on the sap it obtains by puncturing the aloe leaves causing circular lesions 3mm in diameter which leave unsightly marks on the aloe leaves.  The Aloe Snout Weevil lays its eggs at the base of the aloe leaves, the larvae bore into the stem just below the crown of the plant which often causes the entire plant to die.
For comprehensive information on Snout weevil Damage Done to Aloes go to Kumbula Nursery Blog at

White Scale insects
The white scale insects become visible as neat white rows on the leaves, especially on the lower surfaces. If untreated, the entire plant will eventually be covered by the insects and may die.
The roots and stems are also eaten by mole rats which can completely destroy a whole colony in a very short period of time

Aloe cancer or gall mite
Very often the first sign of gall mite noticed when a flower spike starts to emerge from the plant all crooked and bent with signs of a cancerous looking growth on it which develops into unsightly galls on the flower spike as it matures. Aloe cancer may also start as an irregular growth on the base of some of the older leaves, often where an earlier inflorescence has dried.
Gall mites are minute insects that travel through the air.
When encountered cut off and destroy by burning or disposing of with the house refuse.
Then treat the cut as well as the whole plant can be sprayed with a systemic insecticide at the manufacturer's recommended application rate. Keep an eye open for signs of infection on nearby plants.

Biodiversity value
This aloe can make a valuable contribution to increasing bio-diversity in any landscape in particular in Mount Moreland.
Aloe maculate flowers which can be bright red, orange or yellow are a rich source of nectar which attract pollinating insects in particular honey bees. Without a doubt the main pollinating agent of the Aloe maculata is sunbirds as it is carefully designed to accommodate them. At Mount Moreland they are the aloes in my own garden that attract more sunbirds by far than any of the other aloes, attracting in particular White Bellied and Black Sun birds which feed on their nectar with a lesser number of olive sunbirds. This winter I have seen the very beautiful scarlet-chested sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis) on my plants. Unfortunately to date I have not been able to get a photo of it. The widespread planting of this aloe in Mount Moreland would have a dramatic effect on the population of sunbirds that can be supported during the winter months including hopefully the scarlet chested 

This photograph of a scarlet-chested sunbird was very kindly loaned to me by the photographer Hugh Chittenden see his bird photos at

Uses and cultural aspects
The sap from the leaves is used as a substitute for soap.
The Soap Aloe is highly adaptable and is naturally found in a wide range of habitats across Southern Africa, from Zimbabwe in the north, to the Cape Peninsula in the south. Specifically, it is native to southern and eastern South Africa, south-eastern Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Naturalised Distribution
This species is widely naturalised in south-eastern and eastern Australia (i.e. in south-eastern Queensland, in some parts of central and northern New South Wales, in southern and western Victoria and in Tasmania. Also naturalised on Lord Howe Island, Norflok Island and sparingly naturalised in south-eastern South Australia.

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design and Rehabilitation Specialist


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