In 330BC when Alexander the Great conquered the Island of Socotra off the coast of Somalia, his aim was to seize control of the aloe trade for strategic military reasons.
Aloe was farmed and traded in abundance here and was essential to the survival of any army at the time because of its wound-healing and laxative powers.
Aloe is twice mentioned in the Bible in the writings of Solomon: “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.” (Proverbs 7:17) and “With trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices” (Song of Songs 4: 14).
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were all familiar with the phenomenal medicinal properties of aloe, as were the Khoisan in Southern Africa.
The Khoisan’s medicinal plant knowledge was part of their oral tradition, while the early Greek physician Dioscorides recorded its properties in his world-renowned book titled ‘De Materia Medica’ (The Materials of Medicine).
As the world became smaller and European explorers, traders and settlers ventured round the tip of Africa and into Southern Africa they encountered the Khoisan. The world’s most ancient people, they had been using Aloe ferox medicinally for thousands of years.
We know this because Aloe ferox is one of the few plants depicted in Bushmen paintings. Cave paintings in the Aliwal North area of South Africa show humans depicted alongside Aloe ferox, which clearly indicates they made use of it.
The aloe is Africa’s floral gold and the 400 species of aloe that exist in the world are indigenous only to Africa and Madagascar, with a few species in Yemen.
Worldwide the aloe industry is worth an estimated 110-billion dollars per year. In South Africa the Aloe ferox industry is booming, with several factories and rural communities in the Eastern Cape participating in the global trade.
The first evidence of Aloe ferox being used commercially was in 1761. The story goes that a slave working for a farmer named Johannes Petrus de Wit showed him the age-old art of tapping aloes to derive the medicinal bitters or ‘lump’ from the plant – which is a most effective laxative. This was then supplied to the Dutch East India Company and exported to Europe.
A dark brown, glasslike, brittle lump, Aloe lump is packaged in boxes and tins and it is available worldwide as a laxative. Aloe bitters is also used in herbal tonics such as Swedish bitters.
However, it is the inner fleshy part of the plant – which contains the aloe gel – that is most valuable to commercial producers today. Used in any number of skincare products and tonics, apart from its skin soothing and wound-healing healing properties, it is thought to be an immune system stimulant.
Despite there being hundreds of species of aloe (some of which are poisonous), what is fascinating is that people from totally different cultures and continents honed in on two species of aloe – Aloe ferox and Aloe vera, which share strikingly similar properties.
Two worlds apart and yet they shared the secrets of one of the world’s greatest plants.