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MY QUEST FOR ALOE POLYPHYLLA

CACTUS & SUCCULENT JOURNAL (U.S.), Vol. 51, 1979
ALAN C. BEVERLY


Aloe polyphylla Schonland ex Pillans in S.A. Gardening & Country Life 24:267 (1934); Reynolds in Jour. Bot. Soc. S.A. 20: 11 (1934); Fl. Pl. S.A. 1.5: Plate 571 (1935).

Description (based on flowering plants at type locality):
Plants solitary or in dense groups of a dozen or more individuals, the rosettes rounded, reaching .50cm high, 60-80cm wide in old specimens. Stem none.

Leaves about 150, 20-30cm long, 6-l0cm broad, ovate-oblong, acuminate, ascending incurved, gray-green with the apical portion dry and turning deep purplish, always arranged in 5 rows of 15-30 leaves with a clockwise or counterclockwise twist; upper surface somewhat concave at the middle, smooth; lower surface convex, obscurely sulcate, with a palest green to white raised edge or keel nearer the one or other margin in upper third of leaf, sometimes with 2 such raised edges, never in median line; margins with a pale almost white cartilaginous edge armed with pale deltoid firm spreading or recurved teeth 5-8mm irregularly placed on margin.

Inflorescence 50-60cm high, 3-8 branches from low down with several sterile bracts 2-3cm long, lanceolate-deltoid acuminate, somewhat fleshy, scarious at apex, with prominent dull green nerves turning purplish at apex.

Racemes densely flowered, about 12-15cm, l0cm diameter youngest buds erect, densely congested, open flowers laxer, cernuous.

Pedicels 4-6cm long, ascending. decurved at apex, usually the color of the perianth, reaching 8cm in the fruit.

Bracts lanceolate-deltoid, acuminate, rather fleshy, scarious at apex, with prominent dull green nerves, tinged with pink above the middle, turning purplish at apex, the lowest about as long as their pedicels.

Perianth 45-55mm long, basally obtuse and slightly stipitate, cylindrictrigonous, slightly narrower low down, about 10mm diameter at the middle, slightly broader upwards, with mouth slightly upturned, pale red to salmon-pink, rarely yellow; outer segments free to base, 3-nerved, apices sub-acute slightly spreading, with a greenish keel from the apex to the middle; inner segments free to base, slightly longer than the outer and with more obtuse spreading apices.

Anthers exerted 5mm. Stigma at length exerted 5mm.

Distribution: Lesotho (see 1:750 000 scale map by A. C. Beverly 1977, Pg. 5). Phurumela, November 1915, F. H. Holland in Alb. Mus. Herb.; Butha Buthe, Nov. 1922, H. Ashton in Nat. Herb.; Western slopes of Phurumela Mountain 2 Sept. 1934, Reynolds 934 Type (No. 21370 in Bolus Herb); Phurumela Mt. 15 Oct. 1934, G. W. Reyonlds 16695 in Nat. Herb.; Phurumela Mt. 12 Sept. 1937, Reynolds 2625 in Nat. Herb.

TYPE LOCALITY: Lesotho; Western slopes of Phurumela (Furumela) Mountain, 2385m (7800 ft.) and above Mofotisi's village, all about 48km (30 miles) east of Maseru. The upper site has been extinct since 1973.

-Adapted from G.W. Reynold's The Aloes of South Africa, 1969.

Lesotho, a small mountainous enclave in central Africa, held more for me than the US Peace Corps could ever tell a new volunteer, fresh out of college and eager for adventure. I taught high school physical science for 18 months before I got the opportunity that produced this work, The newly established Sehlabathebe National Park, located at 2450m (8000 ft.) in the remote southeastern Drakensberg, needed a botanist to start exploring the region's grassland flora and communities. I was joined shortly by Dr. Fred K. Hoener and together we began exploring, collecting, photographing and filing plant material from all areas of the 6500 hectare national park. We collected over 900 specimens the first season and also managed to finish construction of the Research Station's upstairs laboratory. The second season left me with the opportunity to hike the Malutis, the Thaba Putsoa, and the Drakensberg in search of the world's rarest Aloe, the spiral aloe of Lesotho.

The author, ready to begin a 5 day hike in the Maluti mountains.

Fig.1. The author, ready to begin a 5 day hike in the Maluti mountains.


A. Polyphylla A. Polyphylla

Fig. 2. A. polyphylla with dessicated capsules containing seed, a March-April condition.

Fig. 3. A. polyphylla, early stages of flowering suring the first week of October.

Always recognized as an endemic to Lesotho, there was controversy over just how widespread and abundant (or depleted) populations actually are. One lady who has studied more about Lesotho's flora than anyone is Dr. A. Jacot-Guillarmod. She wrote in 19751 that the sum total of plants in natural populations was "probably down to below 500." But I also heard many statements counter to this.

I planned an extra year in Lesotho to conduct a study of the extant and extinct populations. I wanted to find out why this species is in trouble, why it is in danger of becoming so rare in its natural habitat that it is listed on Appendix 1 of the 1973 IUCN Endangered Species Convention. I was able to make general observations on Lesotho's problems with land management (which are grave) which affect the entire flora.

I crossed the country many times in light aircraft, and came to know all the mountains and rivers well. I traveled on foot, horseback, truck and motorcycle. When walking I carried a large, well equipped backpack and followed the people's established trails, which connect villages and fields. I met many friendly, hardy Basotho people who guided me and gave information and advice readily. I consulted the headman or chief when staying the night near a village, and on all but one occasion I was well received. I can only give brief glimpses into the totality of my experience in Lesotho, but hope that the rigorous nature of life in this poorest and most rugged of the world's nations is appreciated by the reader.

(1) A. Jacot-Guillarmod "Point of No Return?"
African Wildlife 29, 4 summer 1975 p. 28.

A late winter trip to the central Malutis range with an experienced guide along with a pack mule and two horses revealed several of the larger Aloe polyphylla populations and many of the extinct ones. We found several very small sites in a close area, some of which possessed only specimens larger than anyone would care to move. The smaller more manageable specimens have only since 1960 been picked by the Basotho and sold to tourists on the Mountain Road, or carted out of the Malutis on donkeys to the Orange Free State.

On a vivid, starry Saturday evening we made camp on the Senquyane River beneath a village apparently having a spring plowing ceremony. We were treated to a continuous rhythmic wailing and drum beating with bells that only ceased Sunday morning. The satellites I had seen that evening were a strangely silent contrast to the more raucous entertainment nearby. We rose and climbed up the eastern side of the valley in perfectly clear cool and calm weather. Occasionally the mule had distinctly different ideas from ours, and several wild chase scenes ensued. Small packs of herd dogs numerous times tried to run me off, and I soon learned why every Mosotho man in the mountains carries a suitably sized staff. I'm sure mine did double duty. This trip also revealed an interesting and beautiful canyon, the Dikolobeng. A steep walled 460m (1500 ft.) deep gorge runs east-west with north-south facing slopes. I found A. polyphylla perched on nearly vertical north facing basalt far out of reach, like evolution's small emeralds set in nature's mosaic design. After 10 days of riding and hiking we turned towards Sehlabathebe, another 4 days away. Upon arrival I had fairly sore welts.

Maluti Guide.

Fig.4. The hut of my Maluti guide, Alphonse Sello, and his daughter, with the largest A. polyphylla I ever saw.

On the first trip from Sehlabathebe National Park in mid-summer I walked along the border with the Transkei Republic, studied interesting rare local orchids with a hospitable South African couple, then walked on towards Qacha's Nek, viewing the southernmost Drakensberg peaks, massive basalt walls of Triassic Age (about 180 million years ago). The next day, after a visit to the hospital for blister treatment I found myself hitchhiking west into the magnificent Senqu (Orange) river gorge, where 1350m (4400 ft.) of rocks and ledges in three geologic strata (Basalt-Sandstone-Red Bed) can be viewed along with Aloe saponaria in flower clinging to the steep red bed formation at the river's elevation of 1620m (5300 ft.). I had to change trucks because of an accident blocking the road, and climbed onto a heavily laden small pick-up. After much road dirt and many hours I was let off with the first stars gathering strength, the waxing moon casting sharp clear shadows of flowering Agave americana2 on decorated, round, mud-dung huts with thatched roofs and barking, mangy, puny dogs telling everyone in the village of my arrival. The driver had arranged for a deaf mute man (I only saw the whites of his eyes, Hashes of teeth, and moonbeams reflecting off his forehead) to lead me another mile to my destination, a Catholic mission school at Sekakes where I knew another volunteer. I was oblivious as to actual position and totally dependent on this man. All went well. A two day rest enabled me to carry on to Mphakis, where I found a large A. polyphylla site which had suffered horrendously at the hands of malicious herd boys. They had knocked the inflorescences off every blooming plant in the population, so that no seed was produced that season. I had a long talk with two cooperative and important chiefs about this problem.

Not finding A. polyphylla on Mt. Austen, I descended towards the Senqu ferry at Kubung, and spent a night in an Aloe ferox community on Cave Sandstone. School children gave me all their attention, taxing my patience, until night fall. The river in February is an awesome raging torrent swollen by heavy rains at the headwaters and perhaps 200m wide and swift. I had great apprehension at the idea of crossing it. A twelve foot aluminum row boat was loaded with 3 men, a goat, a 50kg. sack of cornmeal, and my 27kg. pack. With 3 inches freeboard and one inch water showing on the floor already I paid the operator my fare (20 cents) and cautiously stepped in. I began bailing but the captain motioned me to stop. Again, I was totally in the care of this man and it turned out he very skillfully handled the boat through the swift currents, even spinning twice to align with the shore, and wedged the bow between large boulders on the opposite shore. A very hot afternoon hike slowed me considerably, but I crossed the Ketone River before sunset. Several days later I found A. polyphylla in some very picturesque canyons where 60m (200 ft.) basalt waterslides and rainbows guided my thoughts. I stayed with some very pure mountain people along the way, who enjoyed every gadget in my pack. They couldn't understand why a white man would walk so far with such a heavy load only to look for Kharatsa (A. polyphylla), "the spiraled one." Children screamed and were afraid at their first sighting of a white man, who looked nothing like anything that figured in their world. I was genuinely touched when this group of women offered me spare change, after I told them I was too poor to buy a car.

(2) non-native of course, but the Basotho put this species to good use by planting a perimeter around thier cattle kraals.

Polyphylla basalt

Fig.5. A. polyphylla on steep basalt, bathed by a continuous flow of water in summer.


Polyphylla Eucomis.

Fig.6. A. polyphylla with Eucomis undulata.

On another occasion I was driving a government landrover up the Khubelu River with two Mosotho guides in search of A. polyphylla. The road is merely a bulldozed, eroded track, which winds up the valley, crossing several times. The first crossing wasn't bad, but I should have known better when we reached the second. The vehicle stalled only 5 meters from the opposite shore. With water flooding the floorboard I climbed (swam) out to tie up the exhaust pipe (pointing upstream and submerged), and dried out the distributor cap. After some agonizing moments I was able to drive out a steep rocky embankment (was it really the road?) and on to a small settlement where a gathering of colorfully dressed people hailed us to stop. We had arrived at Ha Mabuleng village during an initiation ceremony for girls, and all men in the village are to be secluded into the main hut. I was covered with mud and rather unclad after the second crossing. They brought me water to wash, and joala (sorghum beer) to drink before I entered the hut. I spoke with men who know the whole Khubelu valley and obtained valuable information on probable A. polyphylla sites previously unknown. Sadly enough, I would never get to visit them all. These sites I classified as reliably reported. Later, after more joala and pictures, we left, only to confront the second crossing once again. Now, with more respect for the river, I waded ahead and guided the landrover around the boulders, but we damaged the transmission housing. We made it back to the government camp leaving a trail of oil, and very luckily got it repaired the next morning. The rainy season in Lesotho’s mountains is a dangerous test of one's driving talents. I subsequently learned how to control a downhill mud sliding landrover with a six foot ditch on the left and a deep canyon on the right. Shovels, gumboots, chains, petrol, coveralls, mud and water and more around each curve were a horrendous, constant reality.

On the same trip we also visited the parents of the Mosotho man who was working with me on this project. Far above the Senqu and several hours off the main road this small village is a two hour walk from the country's largest A. polyphylla site. As a base camp the modest hospitality afforded our presence was most gracious given the rather sordid conditions. We had to wait out wet weather for two days before hiking and I greeted the following rainbows with genuine elation. The next few days become most rewarding, with several more sizable populations located. The largest site covered about two hectare on exfoliating basalt with grasses, small shrubs and about 350 A. polyphylla. Seedlings of A. polyphylla were observed growing on the globose mounds of Euphorbia clavarioides. I also found the "pineapple plant", Eucomis undulata (Liliaceae).

Senqu crossing Escarpment edge

Fig. 7. The Senqu crossing

Fig. 8. Escarpment edge near Mt. Aux-Sources 3272m (10,700 ft.).

From Mokhotlong we decided to split up, with Ntate Motaung exploring the upper Mokhotlong river valley 2 days on horseback and me starting on the' south side of Black Mountain, above the camp, and walking up the Sakeng River (which drains the north side of Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3493m, 11,425 ft., the highest mountain in southern Africa) to the village Ha Dipate. A nice trail quickly led me there as the day's first thundershower coalesced and darkened the sky. Boys led me up the rainy slope where I only found Aloe aristata, lekhalanyane. After lunch, which included a standard get-acquainted session with the villagers present, I climbed steeply to cross a high ridge. Ferocious lightning and thunder gave me great angst in this wide open grassland. Fortuitously, just as the first sheets of rain pelted me, I came upon a herd boys shelter, complete with sehalahala (the common shrub Chrysocoma tenuifolia) to make fire.

Village Landrover

Fig. 9. A village near Sekakes.

Fig. 10. Stalled landrover in the Khubelu river.

After an hour long appointment with the Great Spirit I was able to carryon and finish my climb. The sky cleared and displayed subtle and pure beauty. I hobbled on into Mokhotlong carrying a kilogram of mud on each leg, exhausted, having hiked 19km and finding no A. polyphylla.

Ha Mabuleng

Fig.11. Some people at Ha Mabuleng village after the initiation ceremony.

In central Lesotho there is a major tourist attraction accessible only by foot trails or airplane. The only road to Semongkong Falls (192m, 615 ft.) is usually impassable. I arrived from the west late one Good Friday afternoon, ending a 6 day trek in the rough western Thaba Putsoa, stumbling and sliding down a mudslick mountain with a cold rain falling. The bridge crossing on the Maletsunyane River is normally 3m above the water, but had been washed out by flash flood months ago, and nobody could rebuild it. I was forced to negotiate total wetness. New friends warmed my soul later that night. My Easter weekend became much brighter than this miserable day had been. The sun, a hike and a horse ride revealed two more small A. polyphylla sites. I flew out to Maseru on Monday's mail plane.

On the last hike of the season I was joined by the Sehlabathebe National Park Administrator, fellow volunteer Pete Cookingham, into the high plateau country, 3058-3364m (10,000-11,000 ft.) in the northeastern part of Lesotho. We hitchhiked from Maseru to the base of the infamous Moteng pass (you can see wreckages thousands of feet below). After waiting five hours we got on a bus operated by an Indian trader. Riding on top gave a magnificent view of the sunset. We camped that night at 3058m (10,000 ft.) in a roadside hut on tundra-like grassland where a subfreezing, clear, windy night offered us a colossal view of the southern skies. The next morning we walked to the escarpment to view Natal and Mt. Aux Sources. While having lunch on the Amphitheater wall with a stupendous view of the Royal Natal National Park, a foraging troop of baboons were having theirs. We camped to see the first light from the eastern sky with the Sentinel Dome highlighting the spacious horizon, and then walked down the Khubelu River towards the Letseng-Ia- Terae diamond mines. That night, at 3200m (10,500 ft.), sleet and snow strafed our tent with a strong wind. It was a terrible night, a "pray for day" situation where you lay down for 14 hours and try to stay warm; we did well enough. The next morning we sat for two hours at road-side in our down suits waiting for a coal truck to take us to the mines. Two hours can seem like two days anywhere, anytime in Lesotho. Later that day we descended back into the Khumelu river valley and I found A. polyphylla in a small side canyon, again clinging to a nearly vertical wall of basalt. We then trekked on into the upper Senqu watershed and I found more A. polyphylla with great help from the villagers. Several days later, Pete and I were caught in an afternoon snow flurry while in the Moremoholo valley. We managed to befriend a chieftainess and got accommodated for the long night. The next sunrise was a bold statement by the Drakensberg, with bright, white, long slopes defined by steep, angular ridges and snow plumes being blown off the peaks against an opalescent blue sky. We crossed another ridge and entered the Bafadi valley, where spear fishing herd boys offered us 18 inch rainbow trout and led me to lekhalanyane (Aloe aristata) again, growing in a large clump hidden on a grassy wall above the river. We ambled on into Mokhotlong later that day, tired, aching, hungry, with expectations fulfilled.

Moteng pass.

Fig.12. Top of Moteng pass, looking down the valley at the winding road.




Read about our detailed explanation of the care and cultivation of A. polyphylla

Articles written by Alan Beverly:
The Ecologic Status And Environment Of Aloe Polyphylla in Lesotho
Plant Health and Cultivation of the Spiral Aloe

My MA Thesis at Cal Poly "The Seed Germination and Ecology of Aloe Polyphylla