Aloe, Aloe …

The native aloes around our house are in bloom. They only do this once a year. Not only are these scaffolded fire-orange flowers a feast for the eyes, they are a feast for myriad bird species. As I am preparing this post, less than three feet away from me a scarlet-chested sunbird and a golden weaver are hopping up and down the ladder of flowers taking noisy, glee-filled turns at sucking out the nectar.

Drunk on nectar, this little fellow hit one of our windows. With a shake of his sore head, the scarlet-chested sunbird flew away shortly after this hurried shot was taken.

The aloe inflorescences–or clusters of flowers–along with the fleshy leaves are an excellent source of goodness for so much in the natural world. Including us. The Zambians regard the flowers not only as a culinary treat (they sun-dry and grind them into a powder, later to be eaten with pumpkin leaves and groundnuts), but also as indispensable traditional medicine.

Flowering aloes in our garden.

Records of the aloe’s health benefits reach all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians who bestowed on it deity-like status. I read that when a Pharaoh died, the funeral ceremony was by invitation only for those who could afford to donate a pound of aloes.

According to Gertrude Baldwin, who has written at length about the aloe, in the Middle East it was used an additive to palm wine known as the Elixir of Jerusalem, as well as a powerful deterrent against evil spirits. King Solomon, meanwhile, held it up as extremely valuable, and in the Bible’s Psalm 45 it says: “… All your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.”

Ms. Baldwin wrote that the Hindus believed aloes grew in the “Garden of Eden,” while the Chinese referred to it as the “harmonic remedy.” The Native Americans used it as an emollient, as well as in rituals, while the Arabs referred to it as the Desert Lily. They crushed the prickly leaves with their bare feet, later drying the pulp into a powder … just as the Zambians do with the flowers today.

The flowering aloes outside my office at sunset.
The aloes outside my office during yesterday’s sunset.

And let’s not forget those hallucinating hippies from the 60’s who coveted the aloe not so much for its healing power but in the hope of getting high. In the words of American poet, Kevin Rottwieler:

aloe fields and hippies

I hear the drums a coming
Ohio, Ohio
Neil Young
USA town
people smoking aloe
a green herbal
a flashback
of the 1960s
wearing beads
and John Lennon
where did all the time go?
a song about yellow snow
music and smoke
on the water
peace signs
American flags
aloe fields of herbal medicine
today’s truth
found in a bottle
life running out of throttle
grab what time is left
and people everywhere
Mick Jagger
has a sore throat again
is Tom Petty available?
hippies wearing beads
where did all the time go?

I cannot answer the question, “where did all the time go,” but I can say that aloe vera even goes back to the discoverer of great countries and great food, Christopher Columbus. (Yes, him again.) Ms. Baldwin claims that the Jesuit priests of Spain were instrumental in bringing aloe vera to the New World, as they called it, going on to quote Columbus as saying that “four vegetables were indispensable for the well being of man: wheat, the grape, the olive and aloe. The first nourishes him, the second raises his spirit, the third brings him harmony, and the fourth cures him.”

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Interesting, and I love the sunset photograph – really stunning

  • Love it!

  • Very interesting. My mum always gave an aloe as a housewarming gift because of its healing ‘power’ . Apparently the syrup from a broken stem on an open wound is healing.

    • Thanks for sharing this story. It’s lovely! Yes, the syrup, or gel, is said to be healing in many different ways … open wounds, burns, allergies … you name it.

  • Love this post on aloe. Stunning photo from your office, at sunset.

    Aren’t we lucky that you are sharing your gifts – love and knowledge of the earth and love of writing – with us. Thank you Annabel. xoxo, Courtney

    • Thank you, dear Courtney. You’ve just made my day! xo

  • Annabel, I am so enjoying your “SavannaBel” Blog. You have such a talent with your writing and photographs. Aren’t we lucky to be living in Africa. Wish we could see you. Lots of love xxx

    • Ah, Di … thank you so much. Yes, I feel very, very privileged to be living here. We are indeed lucky. We must make a plan to meet up again. It’s been way too long. Lots of love to you and Janusz. xo

  • Lovely pics Annabel. That bird is such a cutie. How fortunate that he was only stunned. I love reading your blog…your eyes are open to all the small but magnificent things around you. Thanks for sharing xx

  • Thank you, Hellie! I just feel so lucky to live here. And yes, thank goodness our little sunbird was only stunned. Much love to you … xo


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