Aloe has been used to heal wounds, soothe burns, and soften skin for thousands of years. Native to East Africa, aloe was used by ancient Egyptians as an embalming ingredient and to treat skin conditions such as burns. Cleopatra is said to have considered aloe lotions to be the source of her renowned beauty. Legend has it that the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) told Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) to conquer the East African island Socotra so that a reliable supply of aloe would be available to Greece.
Common Names: Aloe, Aloe Vera, Barbados Aloe
Description: Clumping perennial up to 3 feet tall; spiky, succulent green leaves; yellow, orange, or red flowers
Hardiness: To Zone 10
Flowering: Mature (4-year-old) plants grown outdoors will bloom spring to summer
Parts Used: Gel from leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to East Africa, naturalized in other regions, including the Caribbean
The plant’s name comes from the Arabic word alloeh, meaning “bitter and shiny,” which accurately describes the gel found inside aloe leaves.
Aloe contains polysaccharides thought to speed the healing of skin tissue and reduce inflammation. Aloe leaf juice and gel (a clear, jellylike substance) can be used to soothe burns, superficial skin wounds, sunburn, eczema, and rashes caused by poison oak and poison ivy. Aloe gel has also been applied to fingernails to prevent nail biting. Taken internally, the gel can be soothing to the digestive tract and has been used to treat colitis, Crohn’s disease, and peptic ulcers. Studies have shown that aloe could help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
Aloe latex, or aloin, a brownish yellow gel found under the leaf blades, has traditionally been used as a laxative. Aloe latex is extremely harsh, however, and in 2002, the FDA issued a ban on over-the-counter laxative drug products that contain aloe ingredients. Aloe latex can still be purchased as an herbal supplement.
Caution: Aloe latex is extremely harsh. Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease, or hemorrhoids. It can cause gastric upset, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping in some people. In addition, long-term use of products that contain aloe latex can lead to dependency. Commercial aloe gel and juice do not contain aloe latex. Externally, aloe gel can cause minor skin irritation.
How to grow it
Aloe is easy to grow in well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. In Zone 9 and colder, grow aloe indoors, in a pot filled with a coarse medium. Do not overwater. Potted aloe seems to grow best when slightly crowded; if necessary, repot in late winter or spring. When harvesting aloe gel, cut the outermost leaves first; new growth is produced from the plant’s center. To propagate, uproot and replant offshoots that are 2 to 3 inches tall.