Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Of Magical Aloes...

On the second page of my novel The Housemaid's Daughter, the young heroine, Ada, describes the landscape that surrounds the small community of Cradock where she was born:
"On the edge of town where the sky met the earth, tough Karoo bush hardly ever taller than the height of a child clung to the dry soil. Above the bush poked the withered trunks of aloes, topped by orange flower spikes that stood out like flames against the scrub."

The particular aloe that Ada is describing is Aloe ferox, the signature aloe of the Karoo, which flowers in midwinter to create a dramatic sweep of "standing flames" above the parched veld. To drive through the countryside at that time of year is a truly other-worldly experience. The landscape takes on a kind of jurassic feel - the aloes are such prehistoric-looking plants that you wouldn't be surprised to see the snout of a dinosaur poking out...

Aloes have evolved in some of the harshest, driest climates on earth. Their thick, spine-tipped leaves are as tough as leather, and designed to hoard every drop of water that happens to come their way. They manage to survive not only searing temperatures in summer but icy winds in winter and, as Ada says, cling to the dry soil with determined ferocity.

But the aloe's greatest surprise lies in the gel that oozes from those tough, inhospitable leaves. It has been found to have remarkably soothing properties and is now used around the world in creams and gels to treat skin conditions, burns, and the like. How ironic that such a formidable plant should produce such a tender emollient! Just shows that you can't judge anything - or anyone - by appearances alone...

And, by the way, did you spot the delicately drawn aloe flowers that appear between sections of The Housemaid's Daughter?

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