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Aloe plicatilis (fan aloe)

Fan aloe is an unusual, many-branched succulent with striking scarlet flowers and fan-like clusters of leaves.

Aloe plicatilis in the Puerto de la Cruz Botanical Gardens, Tenerife

Aloe plicatilis in the Puerto de la Cruz Botanical Gardens, Tenerife

Species information

Scientific name: 

Aloe plicatilis (L.) Mill.

Common name: 

fan aloe

Conservation status: 

Not considered threatened. Listed in CITES Appendix II.

Habitat: 

Dry rocky slopes; amongst fynbos vegetation (shrubland or heathland vegetation in coastal and mountainous areas with winter rainfall and a Mediterranean climate).

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, medicinal uses in South Africa.

Known hazards: 

Leaves harmful if eaten by humans or animals.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Asparagales
Family: 
Xanthorrhoeaceae
Genus: Aloe

About this species

Aloe plicatilis was first given a Latin name (Aloe africana arborescens montana non spinosa folio longissimo, plicatili, flore rubro) in 1695 by Heinrich Bernhard Oldenland (1663-1722), the master gardener at the Dutch East India Company garden in Cape Town. In 1753, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus renamed it Aloe disticha var. plicatilis, and this was in turn replaced with its present name by Philip Miller, Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, in 1768. This striking plant has a long history of cultivation in Britain. Miller had been growing it at the Chelsea Physic Garden since 1731 and it was illustrated in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1799. It is normally grown as a conservatory plant in Britain, but is widely cultivated as a garden plant in Mediterranean areas. The clusters of leaves resemble an open fan, giving rise to the fan aloe’s common name.

Synonym: 

Aloe flabelliformis, Rhipidodendrum plicatile

Genus: 
Aloe

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to South Africa, where it occurs in southern Western Cape Province, from Franschhoek to Elandskloof, growing on rocky mountain slopes alongside proteas and cape heaths.

Description

A shrub or small tree, this succulent grows to 5 m high and wide, with a branched stem bearing fans of stiff, rather flat, spineless, strap-shaped leaves up to 30 cm long. The spikes of tubular, red flowers are borne at the end of upright peduncles (flower stalks) from spring to early summer in South Africa, and from late winter to early spring in Britain. The flowers are pollinated by sunbirds in its native habitat.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Illustration of Aloe plicatilis by Sydenham Edwards, from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1799).

Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over two hundred years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Threats and conservation

Fan aloe is not considered to be threatened, but has a rather limited distribution in the wild. It is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix II, meaning that international trade in this species is controlled, and export permits may be required.

Uses

Fan aloe is cultivated as an ornamental. The gel has wound-healing properties, and in some areas in South Africa it is used in a drink to stimulate the immune system. The gel is also reported to be used to treat diabetes. Scientific analysis of the gel has resulted in the isolation of glucomannan, a polysaccharide which may have a role in its wound-healing effects.

Kew’s Africulture Centre project

Kew’s Africulture Centre project aims to promote sustainable management of botanical resources for food, medicine, craft and other economically beneficial activities in an area near Grahamstown, South Africa. It is estimated that about 80% of the black Africans living in this community rely solely on traditional medicines. Because of the increased incidence of disease and the fact that the population of Grahamstown has more than doubled in the last 15 years, the demand for traditional medicines has increased and there is no sustainable supply of species traditionally used as medicine and for food.

In this Darwin Initative-funded project, Kew is working with Garden Africa and Umthathi, an NGO in Grahamstown, to develop a nursery garden which is propagating some of the key endangered species. Umthathi has established a local network of traditional healers to identify the species they would like to have propagated on the 10 hectare plot that was secured for the creation of the Centre. Kew works with Garden Africa and other partners in South Africa to support the propagation of selected species and to develop good quality plant-based products that can be made by these communities to mitigate the effects of opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis, psoriasis and oral thrush.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 5.34 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two
Germination testing: 100% germination was achieved on a 1% agar medium, at a temperature of 15°C, and a cycle of 8 hours daylight/16 hours darkness.

Cultivation

In Britain, Aloe plicatilis requires protection from frost, and is best grown in good, well-drained soil under glass or, when young, in a container outside. Propagation is by seed or branch cuttings taken in spring.

This species at Kew

Fan aloe can be seen growing in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew.

Preserved specimens of fan aloe are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of an alcohol-preserved specimen can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue

References and credits

Court, D. (2000). Succulent Flora of Southern Africa, Revised Edition. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town.

Curtis, W. (1799). Aloe plicatilis. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 13: t. 457.

Phillips, R. & Rix, M. (1998). Conservatory and Indoor Plants, Volume 2. Pan Books Ltd, London.

Reynolds, T. (ed.) (2004). Aloes: The genus Aloe. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants – Industrial Profiles. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (2008) Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 15 February 2011).

Van Wyk, B.-E. & Smith, G.F. (1996). Guide to the Aloes of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2011). Aloe plicatilis. Published on the Internet by the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 15 February 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Sustainable Uses Group
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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