Monday, June 1, 2009
Aloe dichotoma: the Quiver Tree
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.
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.