Monday, June 1, 2009

Aloe dichotoma: the Quiver Tree

An Aloe dichotoma forest east of Ratelpoort, Northern Cape, South Africa (August, 2004).

In Namaqualand, in the arid northwestern corner of South Africa, about the closest thing to a forest that a traveler in search of shade will find are groves of Quiver Trees—Aloe dichotoma, or Kokerboom in Afrikaans—growing on rocky slopes. At about 10 to 20 feet high, Quiver Trees are giants of the succulent plant world, if on the small side by ordinary tree standards.

The forest of Aloe dichotoma in the photo is located near Ratelpoort in central Namaqualand, where some of the finest stands of this species that I have seen occur. Quiver Trees are widespread in the arid parts of southern Africa, growing naturally throughout much of the Northern Cape Province in the RSA, and north well into Namibia. There is quite a bit of variation in the form of the plants, and a short, highly branched form found in the northern part of the species’ range is sometimes recognized as a separate entity, Aloe ramosissima.

The common names Quiver Tree and Kokerboom both refer to the former usage of hollowed-out A. dichotoma stems as containers for arrows, by Khoisan people. Aloe dichotoma has been put to other ethnobotanical uses, as well. In the not too distant past in the hinterlands of South Africa, farmers without electricity would fashion A. dichotoma wood into boxes that served as crude refrigerators. The wood is very light and porous, and if kept wet by a drip of water a Kokerboom container apparently stays quite cool from evaporation. I actually saw a Kokerboom refrigerator outside of a farmhouse in Bushmanland, years ago, though the device had been idle for some time.

Aloe dichotoma seedling, about a foot high at four years of age.

The homeland of the Quiver Tree receives its rain in winter, for the most part, but cultivated A. dichotoma plants pretty much seem to grow whenever water is available. Ordinary cactus and succulent soil mixes and watering regimes seem to work well with the Kokerboom, though it is not nearly as tolerant of poor light as its houseplant cousin, Aloe vera. Seed is usually available from Silverhill Seeds, and can quickly yield nice little plants, especially if the seedlings are given plenty of root run. I started my seedlings in the autumn, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it was possible to germinate seed in other seasons.

Aloe dichotoma with Connecticut Yankee for scale. The landscape, with domes of red gneiss/granite, is typical of Namaqualand. This is the farm Namaras, southeast of Springbok (July, 2004).


Julie said...

Interesting post! That landscape makes me think of south eastern California around the area of Joshua Tree National Forest...same rocky looking terrain! I wonder if any of these beauties grow out there??? I absolutely love Joshua Trees also! day to get to S. Africa...I dream of the day!!!

Matt said...

Good to see you back, Julie! Yes, the landscapes in southern California can be pretty similar to the places where Quiver Trees grow (lots of bare granite). Aloes are strictly native to Old World deserts, but I know that some Californians do cultivate A. dichotoma outside.

Ryan said...

Can Quiver Trees grow in Southern California? If so, could you look at a picture on my website to see what I'm looking at?

thanks in advance

Matt said...

Ryan: Yes, that looks like a young Quiver Tree!