Aloe ciliaris

Haw. var. ciliaris

Common names:
climbing aloe (Eng.); rank-aalwyn (Afr.)

Aloe ciliaris var.ciliaris

Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris is a small, handsome, climbing aloe and one of the easiest to cultivate. It belongs to a group of small shrubby aloes consisting of five species; Aloe ciliaris, A. commixta, A. gracilis, A. striatula, and A. tenuior. There are two other varieties of A. ciliaris, namely, A. ciliaris var. redacta and A. ciliaris var. tidmarshii. Our variety of this species differs from the others in this group and in fact from all other Aloe species (about 450) by being the only true climbing aloe. It is also the fastest growing of all aloe species.

About aloes
Aloes, with few exceptions, are confined to Africa and its islands. They belong to the Aloe family, Asphodelaceae/Aloaceae, and other well-known members include Gasteria and Haworthia, Astroloba and Poellnitzia. Aloes are distinguished by their mainly colourful, cylindrical, tubular flowers and bitter leaf sap. The leaves of aloes are oblong, tapering, often strap-shaped and occur in rosettes. The leaves in young plants are always opposite (distichous), but soon become spiral. Most aloes thrive in cultivation and this variety is exceptionally easy to grow. Its habitat is the dense thickets of Eastern Cape, the home of so many large mammals such as elephant, buffalo and rhino. The generic name Aloe was established by Linnaeus in 1753.

Leaves with teeth at their baseAloe ciliaris var. ciliaris is sparsely branched, climbing to 10 m or even higher. The base can sometimes be multistemmed and with age may become a rounded, swollen caudex up to 150 mm in diameter, bearing grey bark. Roots are shallow, fleshy and about 5 mm in diameter, radiating from the swollen base. Stems lying on the ground will root. Its leafy, elongated stems are 8-12 mm in diameter, initially green and covered by the amplexicaul, striated leaf bases which become dry, papery and grey with age. This covering eventually also erodes, exposing its grey bark. The spirally arranged green leaves are leathery but softly succulent, linear-lanceolate 50-152 x10-30 mm, bearing small white teeth extending right around the leaf base. The leaf sap is not bitter as found in so many other aloe species. The internodes are 15-30 mm apart but the leaves tend to be more crowded at the ends, forming a loose rosette up to about 150 mm in diameter. The inflorescence is a simple, ascending raceme, 150-300 mm long, appearing near the branch ends, and racemes are 50-120 mm long. The tubular flowers are 28 x 8 mm. The oblong fruiting capsule is about 18 mm long. Flowering time is almost throughout the year but with a peak in spring.

Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris is widespread in the Eastern Cape thicket vegetation occurring from Uitenhage in the south to the Kei River mouth in the north east. Plants are often confined to dry river valleys. The plants grow in thorny thickets dominated by succulent plants. Its habitat varies from level ground to rocky areas. The plants are usually scandent, the stems ascending and little branched and climbing to the thicket canopy, producing its showy racemes usually fully extended in full sun. Here the climate is dry and hot and frost very light or absent. Rainfall is mainly during the warmer summer months ranging between 500-600 mm per annum. Winters are dry, but with occasional cold fronts and winter rain.

The specific epithet ciliaris pertains to its marginal teeth arranged like an eyelash and extending right around the base of the amplexicaul leaf. In habitat the plant is variable in leaf size and smaller and larger forms occur. Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris differs from A. ciliaris var. tidmarshii, a somewhat similar looking, multistemmed shrub, 1.0-1.5 m tall, by its climbing nature and marginal teeth which are continuous round the base of the leaf.

According to Dr G.W. Reynolds, Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris was first collected by John Burchell, a well-known English traveller, on 9 Oct. 1813 in the Port Alfred District. It was named by the succulent plant botanist, Adrian Haworth in 1825.

The conspicuous, bright orange-red flowers of Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris are pollinated by sunbirds. The slender stems and often recurved leaves aid in anchoring the plant. The plant has a shallow root system utilising the upper humus-rich soil layer. Water is stored in its fleshy stems and leaves which helps the plant during droughts. It is a well-known fact that climbing plants are rapid growers; They do not have to invest energy in woody characters, but can use their energy in quick growth, and by leaning on other woody vegetation, rapidly reach the canopy, exposing their leaves to the sun. Aloes are usually slow growers, but this species is the exception.

Growing in hedge

Growing Aloe ciliaris var. ciliaris

This is a tough and versatile garden plant for frost-free areas. It is best planted at the base of a shrubbery or fence. It will soon climb to the canopy and produce its handsome flowers. Cuttings can be planted straight into the ground at base of the shrubs or at 1.5 m intervals along fences. It will also scramble up in a hedge. It is not resistant to heavy frost. It also thrives in containers, but needs support for its weak stems. It is not shy to flower and thrives on organic food such as compost. The plants are drought tolerant, but will also grow well in high rainfall regions, where they should be planted in a well-drained spot. It is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions and also grows well in winter rainfall Western Cape gardens.

Probably the easiest of all aloes, a branch can simply be cut and planted in a container or in the garden and will rapidly grow. It can also be grown from seed like all other Aloe species. Seed is best sown during spring or summer. The young plants grow quite fast and can be planted out within a year.

Sow in a sandy, well-drained potting soil in a warm shady position in standard seed trays. Germination is within three weeks. Cover with a thin layer of sand (1-2 mm) and keep moist. The seedlings can be planted out in individual bags as soon as they are large enough to handle. Flowering occurs within 2-3 years.


Reynolds, G.W. 1950. The aloes of South Africa. Trustees of the Aloes of South Africa Book Fund, Johannesburg.

Ernst van Jaarsveld
Kirstenbosch NBG
September 2003

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