Cape aloes (also known bitter aloes) are a palm-like succulent plants that is native to the Cape Region of South Africa. The yellow latex or sap, located just under the outer leaf, is drained and then dried to produce the powdered herb.
Aloe ferox Mill.
Synonyms: bitter aloe, red aloe, Aloe capensis, aloe del cabo (Spanish)
The Plant: Of the some 400 different aloe species, Aloe verais the best known, but several other species have been used for their health benefits and are commercially available to day.
Cape aloes are robust plants, up to 10 feet tall, with broad fleshy, lance-shaped leaves, dull green to reddish green in color with dark brown spines along the edge and, sometimes, lower surface. Aloes grow in dry, tropical areas and prefer well-drained soil and full sun. Bright reddish orange flowers appear from May to August in erect, candle-shaped clusters. Cape aloes herb is the dried latex or sap drained from the leaves of the aloe plant. The sap is located underneath the outside layer of the leaf. It serves to repel grazing animals because of its bitter flavor and acts as a wound sealant when the leaf is damaged. The central part of the aloe leaf contains the mucilage, which is the part used to make gel, beverages and other products.
To prepare cape aloes herb, or aloes bitters as it is known in the regions of harvest, 1/3 to 1/2 of the large leaves are cut near their bases and the bitter yellow sap, or latex, is drained from the leaves into large plastic-lined pits. The sap is then boiled slowly and reduced, allowing it to harden into a brown crystalline form as it cools. After the sap has been removed, the cape aloes leaves may be sold to facility for make aloe gel from the mucilage. Tappers, as the cape aloe leaf harvesters are called, harvest plants once every two or three years depending on weather conditions. A small amount of the leaf is left attached to base. This allows the wound to seal, protecting the plant from disease and insects.
Constituents of Note: A number of active compounds and their derivatives are present in cape aloes with the hydroxyanthracene derivatives (most notably aloins A and B) present at 13 to 25%.
Quality: Cape aloes powder is olive-brown in color with a strong, distinctive aroma and bitter, astringent flavor.
Regulatory Status: Dietary Supplement
Did you know? Cape aloes is grown in hot, dry areas of the Unites States as a garden succulent. A hefty plant, it is one of the tree aloes. A mature specimen is quite imposing, with its large spiny leaves, ten-foot height and huge, showy, orange-red flower spikes. (The spikes probably account for the species name ferox, which meaning "fierce or warlike" in Greek.) Dead leaves dry out and form a skirt round the base of the trunk. In their natural habitat, these aloe leaf skirts provide an insulating layer around the base of the aloe plants, helping to protect them from fire. Healthy, undamaged plants can live up to 150 years.
Directions: Because of the bitter, unpleasant flavor, cape aloes is most often taken in capsule form.
Suggested Uses: Cape aloes may be used as a bitter tonic and an ingredient in several herbal bitters preparations, although it is more commonly used for its internal cleansing action.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies cape aloes as:
Class:2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy
Class:2d Contraindicated in intestinal obstruction, abdominal pain of unknown origin, or any inflammatory condition of the intestines (appendicitis, colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.); in kidney dysfunction; in menstruation; and in children less than 12 years of age; not for use in excess of 8 to 10 days.
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for aloe, contraindications include intestinal obstruction, acutely inflamed intestinal diseases, e.g., Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, appendicitis, abdominal pain of unknown origin. Not to be prescribed to children under 12. For side effects, cramp-like discomforts for short term use. Side-effects for long term use or abuse include disturbances of electrolyte balance, especially potassium deficiency. The monograph also cautions again extended use (more than two weeks) without medical advice and against use during pregnancy.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
Origins: Cape aloes is widely distributed along the eastern parts of South Africa to which it is native. The first exports of cape aloes were reported in 1761 by the Dutch East India Company. Today, many villagers in South Africa rely on the cape aloes trade for their livelihood. Most of cape aloes comes either from the wild or from wild aloes on large tracts of land owned by landowners who invite the tappers to harvest the aloes for a cut in the profits. A 1996 study published by TRAFFIC* estimates 17 million aloe plants are needed to sustain the current cape aloe harvest. The non-destructive manner of harvesting, the large population of plants, the high reseeding rates and a strong community tradition of preserving the aloe plants indicate there are no issues with sustainability of the aloes harvest at this time.
*Newton, David J. and Vaughan, Hugo, South Africa's Aloe ferox Plants, Parts and Derivatives Industry, TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa, 1996.