Aloe Vera: The Medicine Plant (Aloe barbadensis)

Known as the ‘Natural Healer,’ ‘Lily of the desert,’ ‘Plant of immortality,’ and ‘Wand of Heaven,’ Aloe Vera is a member of the Lily family.  Aloe barbadensis, also called A. vera,is commonly called the ‘medicine plant’ as its juices have been used for centuries because of the excellent properties for healing burns.  Originally from Africa, many references to Aloe Vera were made in the literature of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as that of the Indian and Chinese peoples.  Several famous physicians such as Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, and Galen all used Aloe Vera as part of their therapeutic treatment methods.

The genus Aloe has hundreds of kinds of succulents (plants that have an unparalleled ability to store water in their tissues) which have thick tapering leaves generally arranged in rosette form.  The healing components of Aloe barbadensis derive from the leaf that consists of rind containing the sap, the latex layer containing bitter juice, and the gel layer.  It is the gel that is used medicinally.  Aloe Vera juice is available from health food stores.  Commercially easier and less expensive to utilize the entire leaf, ‘whole leaf’ Aloe juice has been hyped as the ‘best.’   This is not the case, as the outer skin has essentially no value.  For topical application, remove a lower leaf from the plant, slice it open, and apply the gel on the affected area.  It is used as an ingredient in various beauty preparations. 

   The many reported benefits of Aloe barbadensis have been attributed to over 200 naturally occurring nutritional components.  These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, proteins, polysaccharides (called the master molecule) and biological stimulators.  Aloe barbadensis contains all of the eight essential amino acids and eleven of the fourteen secondary amino acids.  Aloe barbadensis has Vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, and E.  Aloe barbadensis is used for a variety of ailments including toxic build up, joint pain, gastrointestinal issues, digestion, bowel and colon health, stomach acids, circulatory and cardiovascular systems, antioxidant, skin problems, and immune and respiratory functionality.  When applied topically, it heals skin irritations such as burns, insect bites and stings, sunburn, cuts, rashes, and various stinging plants such as poison ivy.  When your pets encounter these same skin irritations, Aloe barbadensis is good for the same problems. 

   A gel based on Aloe vera that prolongs the conservation of fresh produce, such as fresh fruit and legumes has been developed by researchers at the University of Miguel Hernández in Alicante, Spain.  This gel is tasteless, colourless, and odourless and is a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic preservatives such as sulfur dioxide.  

   Aloes are widely available at garden centers and nurseries.  Although most Aloes have some medicinal or commercial value the most commonly known is Aloe barbadensis commonly called Aloe Vera.  The plant forms a stemless clump of dagger-shaped leaves 1 – 2 feet (30 – 60 cm) long and 2 – 3 inches (5 – 7.5 cm) wide.  Leaves are gray-green, faintly spotted with white, and edged with soft teeth in shades of pink or red.  Aloe is a perennial and takes 4 – 5 years to mature. 

   Older specimens may bloom in springtime and have tubular flowers, yellow to red in colour, that grow in arrow-shaped clusters on spikes that are up to 3 feet (90 cm) tall.  The fruits are small and not particularly significant.  When grown in pots, they appear to need the support of other plants in close proximity.  If the offshoots are thinned out, the plant will need to be propped up with stakes.  Plants can live and reproduce for up to 25 years.

Proper Care

Light  Aloes make excellent house plants when they are given sufficient light.  In cold climates, grow Aloe indoors in a window where it gets lots of sun.  Turn pots occasionally to ensure even growth.  If grown outdoors, Aloes need to be planted in full sun to partial shade and do not require much water.

Temperature  All Aloes are semitropical succulent plants and may only be grown outdoors in areas where there is no chance of freezing.  The plants are 96% water and very susceptible to frost.  They will flourish when placed on the deck or patio during the summer months. 
Watering  Aloes store a large quantity of water within their leaves and root system.  During the active growth period, water plentifully as often as necessary to keep the potting mixture thoroughly moist.  During the rest period, water only enough to prevent the mixture from drying out.  Do not permit water to collect in the tight rosettes of such types as A. variegata.

Propagation  Aloes are propagated by removing the offsets that are produced around the base of mature plants.  These small new rosettes are often attached to the parent by a short underground stolon and may already have little roots, which should be retained for propagation.  They may also be grown from seed.  

Potting/re-potting  Use a good commercial potting mix with extra perlite, granite grit, or coarse sand added.  Packaged ‘cacti mix’ soil may also be used.   Aloes prefer a shallow pot, rather than a deep one, as they have a shallow, spreading root system.  The pot should have a drainage hole or a 1 – 2 inch (2.5 – 5 cm) layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot to ensure adequate drainage.

Feeding   Apply standard liquid fertilize every two weeks during the active growing period. 

Special Problems

Brown Dry Spots  Underwatering. Succulents require generous watering in summer.

Brown Soft Spots  Leaf spot disease.  Water with systemic fungicide and improve ventilation.

Rot at Base Followed By Stem Collapse  Basal stem rot disease, due to overwet conditions in winter.  Use upper stem for propagation.

Stem Elongated & Misshapen  Too much water in winter or too little light in summer. 

Sudden Loss Of Leaves  Very cold water from the tap.  Use tepid water.  May also be underwatering in summer.