03 May 2010

Ikhala: The aloe that serves society

Tony Dold is a botanist ( plant scientist) at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. He told us about ikhala ( Aloe Ferox) the flowering aloe that is shown in the centre of the official arms ( symbol) of the Eastern Cape Province.

The latin name Aloe Ferox ( literally the warlike aloe) refers to the ferocious spines ( like thorns) on the edges of the elaves and also perhaps to the flower heads that look like spears.

Ikhala has a single stem and it can grow as tall as three metre ( as high as the ceiling in a house)

The old leaves remain hanging from the stem after they have dried , forming a "skirt" which is believed to protect the stem from fire.

In the Eastern Cape , ikhala usually flowers between May and August. The flower colour can cary from yellow-orange to bright red. The flowers are carried on a branched crown of spears above the leaves. There are up to eight branches , each carrying hundreds of small tube-shaped flowers.

Where does ikhala grow?

It occurs in nature over 1000 km from the south Western Cape Province through the Eastern Cape to southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is also found in the south eastern corner of the Free State and southern Lesotho.

It is adpatable to many different growing conditions but is most usually found on rocky hill slopes , often in very large numbers.

Why is ikhala used as a symbol?

Ikhala is beautiful , it is strong enough to survice harsh , dry conditions and it has medicinal properties.

Ikhala appears on our car registration plates (number plates) and on the road signs for the Frontier Country tourism route. It also appears on the medal for the Order of the Mendi , a national honour for bravery.

Ikhala in medicine

  • Products made from the sap (juice) from the leaves are used as laxatives but also to treat a number of ailments.These include athritis , skin cancer, burns , eczema, psoriasis , digestive problems and blood pressure problems.
  • Schwedenbitters , a digestive aid found in many pharmacies , contains bitter Aloe.
  • The gel-like flesh from the inside of the leaves is used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound -healing properties.
  • In some Eastern Cape rural homes, Aloe juice is used to wean babies off the breast ( it has a very bitter taste) and is used to treat stomach ache.
  • Xhosa healers use ikhala in prepared remedies to treat high blood pressure and (mixed with other plant substances ) to treat HIV Aids symptoms.
  • Some people smear their bodies with ikhala sap to ward off eveil spirits.

Ikhala and animal health

In the former Ciskei region Aloe Ferox leaves are soaked in poultry drinking water to prevent poultry disease , to fight off ticks and lice and to treat fowl typhoid (Umbathalala).

The leaves are boiled and mixed in the cattle drinking water to prevent Red Water ( Amanzabomvu). The sap (juice) is also applied as a rmedy for scab in sheep.

Ikhala in history

  • Aloe Ferox is one of the very few plants depicted in ancient San rock art. there is an example in the Cradock District.
  • Aloe species are mentioned in the Bible as healing herbs and it is known that the ancient Mesopotamians used the sap from Aloes against skin infection.
  • Hundres of years ago, Spanish explorers kept the cut leaves on board thei sailing ships for burns and cuts.
  • After the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of Workd war 2 , the Japanes used a South African Aloe product on a large scale for the healing of burns and wounds.

Proverb : "Undle ingcolo"

Literally: He has drunk the juice of the flower of the wild Aloe. This is said of a dull , sleepy person because that is the effect the nectar can have on you.

( Source: Umjelo, Eastern Cape Museums , Vol 3 No 1 , August 2006)

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