Authors: Thomas Cole and Tom Forrest
Reviewed by Cathy Watson
Aloes are a vital part of the environment. They act as nurses or protectors for other plants, provide nectar for hundreds of species of insects and birds, are widely used for medicine, and can also be used to restore degraded land. It is exciting therefore to welcome a book about aloes. These are plants we need to know more about.
In her foreword to Aloes of Uganda, the late Ugandan Minister of Tourism Maria Mutagamba wrote that it is not only the first book about aloes in the country but the first book “on our wild flora based on sustained fieldwork to be published in many years.” To gather the photos and text, the authors travelled to all four corners of Uganda.
The authors are Thomas Cole, who worked in Uganda for Save the Children from 2005 to 2009 and continues to return, and Tom Forrest, a long time resident who established a botanical garden at his Kampala home with hundreds of species of native plants.
Although all types of aloes were known to local inhabitants, botanists knew of 16 when Cole and Forrest began their work in 2005. The two plant enthusiasts were able to identify three new species and one new subspecies. One is called Aloe wanalensis after Wanale, the spur of Mt Elgon that looms over the town of Mbale. Another is Aloe butiabana, found from Butiaba on the shores of Lake Albert up to Murchison Falls. A, third is Aloe lukeana, named after Thomas’ brother, Luke Cole, a renowned environmental justice lawyer who died in 2009 aged 46 in a road accident in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In the new book Cole and Forrest also describe a new subspecies of Aloe labworana.
Aloes are thick leaved plants that resist drought. They have long tube-like flowers that grow in clusters. A casual observer might think they are a cactus. But they belong to a different part of the plant kingdom. One of the book’s great attributes is that it turns you from being that casual observer into someone who appreciates aloes. You will never look at them the same way again.
Citing the work of Makerere ethnobotanist, Savina Asiimwe, and other scholars, Cole and Forrest write that “there is a growing body of literature pointing to aloe as the most widespread and best known medicinal herb used throughout Uganda”. They also cite Godfrey Bbosa and colleagues who identified in aloes a compound active against the plasmodium that causes malaria. Across Uganda, the sap and infusions of the plant are also used to treat skin and mouth ulcers, fever and headaches, as well poultry and livestock diseases.
The medicinal benefits of aloes has led to overharvesting. Aloes are also threatened by deforestation, agriculture, fire, grazing and the quarrying of rocky outcrops on which they often grow. “The leading medicinal aloe in Buganda – Aloe dawei or kiagagi in Luganda – has virtually disappeared from around the shores of Lake Victoria where it was once abundant,” write the authors. “Fortunately, it is often cultivated in home gardens for medicinal purposes and used as a hedge.”
Three types of aloe are endangered. Mutagamba suggested that the book “provide the basis for effective policy to support biodiversity conservation and protection of the species.”
With many photos taken from mountains, the book contains striking rarely captured views, including one from Lamwo towards Agoro Hills. Pictures also show that one of the prettiest and most delicate aloes – purple rather than red – grows around Mbarara.
But aloes are far more than pretty. In case you think Cole and Forrest are biased, South African scientists Stephen Cousins and Edward Witkowski writing in the Journal of Arid Environments in 2011, point out that in certain ecosystems aloes are the primary colonizers, moderating harsh environments and helping other less resilient species. In degraded rangelands, areas near aloes have better litter cover, soil seed banks and soil water retention. And aloes’ dense, spreading, mat-like roots make them suitable for stabilizing soil.
Of the 24 species that are described in the book, 13 are shared with Kenya and five with Tanzania. Thus, this book will be of immense interest to groups like the Kenya Aloe Working Group and will have a useful place in libraries used by professionals and students of forestry, agriculture, and environmental science across East Africa.
Cathy Watson is Chief of Programme Development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi.