THE MEANING OF ALOES FOR ME

Think of the South African landscape in winter and the fiery colours of aloes are bound to spring to mind: they grow all over the country and appear in a variety of forms and shades of colour. So ubiquitous are they in the Lowveld region where I grew up that we tended to take their spiky appearance and winter beauty for granted – as we do now in the Eastern Cape.

Aloes have come to mean a lot more to me over the years: our garden at Sheba Gold Mine consisted of various rocky terraces. The one above the driveway had so little soil between the rocks that my mother created a beautiful display of aloes. Most she had collected during our various drives through the countryside, while others my father brought home from places he had visited on the mine. The majority of these were Aloe ferox, which provided a feast for birds and bees during winter.

Even as a little girl, I loved playing between these aloes which – at the time – towered above me, and observing the skinks and spiders that inhabited the stems covered with dried leaves.

Aloes are imprinted on me. Should I ever have to leave this country, I think aloes are high on the list of what I would miss. To me they symbolise hardiness, tenacity, patience, abundance, and resilience. They can survive on their own, and mostly do. In a way, aloes represent independence. While I would never be counted amongst the bravest of people, I have often astounded myself with what I have achieved over the years. Some of these achievements have helped to nurture the quality I value highly in myself: independence.

The seed of independence is as hardy as the aloe plant and has driven me to:

  • Attend a university far from home where I knew not a soul. I left there after four years ready to begin my teaching career and having made a lifelong friend who was to become my husband.
  • Learn to rock climb – probably the scariest of all my solo undertakings, yet a good way to conquer fear and to learn how to trust others. That activity, along with mountaineering, put me in touch with a group of the most wonderful people I have ever met.

I am akin to an aloe in some ways for I am:

  • Steadfast and loyal to the point of stubbornness.
  • Prickly at times yet protective of those whom I love and who mean a lot to me.
  • Nurturing is in my soul – providing shelter, sustenance, a hug, a shoulder to cry on when the need arises, as well as a listening ear.
  • Having moved several times, I am happy to put down my roots wherever my heart is and to make the best of what we have.

As the aloes provide shelter for smaller creatures and their bright blooms attract birds, bees and other insects to share their bounty, so I glow best when surrounded by my growing family. That is when I know that despite the hardships and unexpected hoops I have had to jump through, life has been good to me: I am loved and have plenty of love to offer.

RED RED

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt began a verse like this:

Red, red gold, a kingdom’s ransom, child,
To weave thy yellow hair she bade them spin.
At early dawn the gossamer spiders toiled,
And wove the sunrise in.

As red plays an important part in the decorations of this festive season, I thought we could start with a ‘red, red gold’ sunrise as seen from our bedroom window – beautiful enough to make one wish to rise straight away and see what the day holds in store:

The drabness of the South African winter is brightened by the arrival of the aloe blossoms in various shades of pinks, through to orange and hues of red – they are certainly worth a ‘kingdom’s ransom’ at the time for their beauty and cheerfulness:

Proteas too lift one’s spirits:

Once the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina trees are over and the trees shrug on their green foliage, which later turns yellow and then brown before dropping, we are treated to the bright red of their seeds revealed when the black pods split open:

On a practical note, warning signs are red. Occasionally one has to ‘make do’ as here when the planks brought home were too long to fit into the boot of the car:

Lastly, on a more aesthetic note, see how red brightens up this stained glass window:

THE FLOWER LADY

Andrea was already in her mid-fifties when she and Peter moved to Stony Brae, the farm that had been in his family for generations. She had always known that Peter wanted to farm even though she had happily moved with him to wherever his engineering jobs had taken them. When they had finally settled in Somerset West so that their sons could complete their schooling in one place, she felt they had come to the end of a long journey at last.

Stony Brae had been their regular holiday destination. This is where Mark and Michael had learned to drive their grandfather’s tractor; where they had joined the groups bird hunting with dogs when the season was right; and both boys still loved riding horses and hiking in the hills. Stony Brae had always been the perfect place where the family could unwind.

It had been easy to unwind in such a beautiful place, she reflected, where there were so many things to do and where one could hive off somewhere for a period of peace, to watch birds, or to read in the shade of one of the many trees in the large garden stretching away from the homestead.

That garden. Peter’s mother had been an avid gardener whose passion for plants, both exotic and indigenous, had kept her occupied in between canning fruit, making jam, baking, and overseeing the magnificent vegetable and herb garden outside the kitchen. Andrea loved that garden that was so different from their small one consisting of a lawn, a few trees, a narrow flower bed along the perimeter walls, and herbs growing in pots. She never gave a thought to the upkeep of the garden at Stony Brae – it was always there and always looked beautiful, whatever the season.

Peter’s father remained on the farm for five years after his wife had died unexpectedly from a snake bite. Andrea and Peter visited the farm more regularly during that time. While Peter discussed farm matters, Andrea and her sons walked along paths in the hills and Andrea began taking an interest in photography.

It was Eleanor, from the farm next door, who pointed out the weavers constructing their nests in the Cape Chestnut trees between the house and the garages for the tractors. They had been sitting on the shady lawn when Eleanor had leaned back in her deck chair with her arms outstretched. “I’ll be glad when the ploughing season is over. All that dust in the air coats everything in the house.” She cast her eyes around the garden, her next words chilling Andrea to the core. “It’s a shame to see how neglected this garden has become since Julie passed on.”

The Garden. From that moment Andrea always thought of it in capital letters: The Garden. Peter made repeated noises about taking over the running of the farm, yet she had placed his enthusiastic, “You can learn to bake bread and perhaps turn out your delicious cheddar and bacon pies for the monthly market” on the back burner. He had been talking about farming since before they had got married.

It was true that Andrea enjoyed baking. Both of them liked entertaining and the farm would be ideal for that. But gardening? Eleanor had made her look at The Garden more closely and her heart quailed at the responsibility looming ahead.

Five years later, Andrea could laugh at her fears. She still preferred The Garden at night when solar lights in the flower beds turned it into a fairy land. Still, after years of pruning, weeding and having to deal with drought, Andrea had planted banks of aloes and succulents that more or less looked after themselves. Encouraged by her neighbours, Philip and Mary, she had devoted a particularly fertile section of The Garden nearest the house to cut flowers. Even though Mary had practically bullied her into selling flowers at the monthly market (along with her baked cookies and pies), Andrea found that she had such an abundance of flowers that even her neighbours had run out of space for displaying them.

Andrea began making up bunches of flowers the afternoon before going to town for the weekly shop. She would leave them in buckets of water overnight and wrap them in newspaper before placing them carefully in the boot of her car. She never failed to experience a thrill of joy whenever she presented unsuspecting people in the supermarket car park, or even in the street, with a bunch of beautiful blooms. “To make you happy,” she would say, or “I have far too many.” She always refused payment, saying “I would like you to have them.”

It wasn’t long before Andrea became known as The Flower Lady. She was happier than she had been for years – until a florist opened next to the supermarket. Susan Finch was quite blunt: “You cannot give away flowers, Andrea. I need people to purchase flowers from me.”

“I have been giving away flowers once a week for years. Why should I stop?”

“Because selling flowers is how I make a living!”

For weeks Andrea miserably dead-headed the flowers in The Garden. Susan had offered to buy flowers, but they weren’t for sale. Where would be the joy of giving – and what if The Garden decided to sulk and not produce? Andrea didn’t want to feel obliged to grow flowers ‘on contract’.

Sister Louisa phoned early on a Wednesday morning, urging Peter to visit his father in the retirement home. “He’s not well, Peter. He’s very confused this morning and is determined to get out because he has to take sheep to an auction.”

Peter’s father hadn’t farmed sheep for twenty years. Instinctively, Andrea cut a bunch of flowers to take with her. There was no point in giving them to the old man and so, while Peter led his father out to a lunch on the veranda, Andrea went in search of a vase.

“Are these really for us?” Andrea’s heart soared at the delight on the faces of the care-givers. She was even more touched when the matron placed the flowers in the rather drab communal lounge “so that more people can enjoy them.”

From then on Andrea the Flower Lady urged The Garden to do its best to deliver blossoms in abundance. Her first stop in town every week is the retirement home with enough flowers for everyone. She wickedly holds back three bunches, which she defiantly hands over to the first three elderly people she sees emerging from the supermarket.

The Flower Lady has tamed The Garden and remains undaunted.

WINTER GARDEN 2020

The winter cold is associated with the end of a vibrant life cycle and a period of dormancy as shown by these leaves and the dead dahlia head:

Leaf litter

Dahlia head

Most of our trees are evergreen, as are the euphorbias and aloes:

Euphorbia

Aloe leaf

The aloe flowers are both beautiful and provide important nutrition during this harsh season.

Aloe flowers

Blackjack seeds abound, just waiting to be dispersed.

Blackjack seeds

While self-sown cosmos make a brave start.

Cosmos seedling

ALOE SEASON

We are missing out on one of the highlights of the year, the widespread blooming of aloes that brighten the otherwise drab landscape of late autumn and during the winter months. I had a legitimate reason to drive out of town last week for the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown began and noted many aloes blooming along the road towards Port Alfred, their flame-coloured blossoms lifting my spirits enormously. Fortunately, as their flowering season is fairly long I am hoping that the restrictions on our movements will be relaxed further before it ends. In the meanwhile, I am confined to observing the aloes in our garden.

Some have progressed from showing tightly closed cone-like buds like this:

To fully opened blossoms like this one:

The aloes attract birds, such as the Greater Double-collared Sunbird above as well as a variety of insects:

I am interested to see the damage done by ants at the base of some of the tubular flowers:

There haven’t been many bees around yet – perhaps they need the flowers to open a little more. I will be keeping an eye out for them.