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Aloe Vera Plant History and Biology

Updated on August 6, 2017
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Aloe vera has a surprisingly wide footprint when it comes to where it grows and cultures that use it for medicinal purposes. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this plant originates from, because it is now found in so many different parts of the world, but many believe that it is native to the deserts of Africa, and was taken from these deserts to the entire world, so that it is now found growing on just about every region of every continent.

Those who know this plant and use it know that it is an effective healer and can be used in a variety of different applications, for a variety of different reasons. Aloe vera plants are surprisingly common, and because of the medicinal uses of aloe vera, many people grow these plants in their homes so they always have it on hand.

A) History of the Aloe Very Plant

The very first physical record of an aloe vera plant occurs on a stone tablet, written in Sumerian, from around 2100 BC, though there is evidence to suggest that this plant was used long before then to treat a wide variety of illnesses and ailments. It was a favorite of the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, as well as the Chinese and Indian cultures. While the earliest record may be from 2100 BC, it is likely that these cultures were using aloe vera for thousands of years before anyone recorded its use.

Aloe Vera Medicinal Uses

In those records, it is obvious that aloe vera was being used to detoxify the body and aid digestion. During this period of time, most illnesses were believed to be caused by demons inhabiting a body, and because aloe was so effective at helping to remedy those ailments, it was believed to be of divine origin and could actually exorcise demons from the body. While we now know that this is not the case, aloe vera is still being used to cure many of the ailments that it was used to cure in the very early days of human history.

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Aloe Vera in Egypt

In Egypt, Aloe was associated with the gods and was believed to be sacred. A variety of queens believed it to be the source of their beauty and health and that it could even grant them immortality. The juice from aloe vera leaves was used to wash the skin and it was also drank to promote health. It is also famously used for the preserving of dead bodies, and because it is both antifungal and antibacterial, it was very effective at preserving bodies once they were buried. While aloe vera cannot grant a person immortality, the Egyptians also knew that aloe vera could soothe pain and ease inflammation.

Greek History and Aloe

During the days of the Greek and Romans, aloe vera was fairly rare and extremely valuable. During his crusade to conquer the world, Alexander the Great took it upon himself (though some say that Aristotle asked him to) to capture a number of islands were great quantities of aloe vera was being grown. These plants quickly became part of their rations given to his armies, were it was used to heal burns and minor wounds sustained in the camps and in battle. It was often included in supply trains to his encampments.

Roman Times

During the reign of Nero, the emperor’s healer traveled across the known world, consulting with other healers to find new ways of utilizing aloe vera. He wrote about his discoveries and about the medicinal uses of aloe vera, ranging from treating burns to combating acne to soothing gastrointestinal conditions. Much of the research that he did is still believed today.

Aloe Vera in the New World

Aloe vera was included in the cargo sent along with Columbus when he discovered the new world. It may very well have been these voyages, along with other explorers that followed his lead, which brought aloe vera to the new world, where it found new root and new purpose.

These plants were transported in pots across the ocean and were used for their healing purposes on ships where gastrointestinal discomfort, malnutrition, and minor wounds and burns would have been common. When the plants were brought to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, they regarded it just as the earliest humans and Egyptians did: as a gift from the gods.

Other Cultures

In Chinese culture, aloe vera was likely used on a daily basis. Across most of the east, it was already heavily in use by the time that most people in the west had begun to discover it and laud it for its usefulness.

In Sweden, when the most common medicine was a practice known as bloodletting (wherein a doctor would cut a person and let blood out into a special bowl, believing that this would alleviate them of their illness or condition, an elixir called Swedish Bitters was often used instead of bloodletting. This was essentially a mixture of aloe vera with a range of other beneficial plants, which was then brewed, filtered, and then drank every morning. The many who invented this elixir is said to have lived to over a hundred years old.

Aloe vera was being used as far north as England during the Middle Ages, where many nuns and monks used it to cure the sick and heal the injured who came to their monasteries for relief. It was most commonly used for ulcers and other gastro-intestinal problems.

Rediscovery

Over the next few centuries, aloe vera would rise and fall in popularity. By the time that modern medicine became the norm, aloe vera has dropped somewhat in most culture’s regard. Many people began to lump it in with other “old wives” cures which were not as effective as the new medicine that was being developed in hospitals and research laboratories. But recently, many people have begun to rediscover aloe vera and its wide variety of uses.

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B) Aloe Vera Plant Biology

The aloe vera plant is made of essentially four different components. These are:

The Rind

The rind is a waxy outer later that acts as a protection for this plant. Because this plant originates from parts of the world where food and water are scarce, it is likely that this rind has developed as a way to prevent desert animals from being able to get at the moisture and nutrients stored inside the rind.

The Sap

Just inside the rind is a fluid called “sap.” Unlike the sap found in most plants, it is neither sweet nor particularly sticky. Instead, it is bitter, and is, again, used to help ward off animals that would try to gnaw through the rind in order to get at the nutrients stored below. Bitterness signifies poison or spoilage to animals, so if they taste it, they are likely to stay away from whatever they are trying to eat, rather than to power through.

The Aloe Vera Gel

The gel is probably what most people are familiar with when it comes to aloe vera. This gel is often taken and bottled to be sold as a salve for all types of burns. It is located inside the leaf, beneath the rind and the sap. It is clear, often colorless, and has a very standard gel-like consistency that is functional for a wide variety of uses. This type of gel is actually scraped off the interior of the leaf and is thicker than the inner gel.

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The Inner Gel

This type of gel contains a wide variety of nutrients. It is thinner, but will still be colorless and clear, depending on the plant itself. One of the biggest benefits of this gel is that it contains a number of amino acids that are essential to the human body.

All parts of the aloe vera plant have some beneficial use, but the two types of gel that can be harvested from the interior of aloe vera leaves are the most common and have the most benefits. The leaves of the aloe vera plant grow in a tight spiral, jutting outwards from the base of the plant. They will usually be greenish gray, with color variations ranging from very green to very gray. These leaves will also have teeth growing along their edges, which provide further protection from hungry and thirsty animals that might try to get at the moisture and nutrients inside the leaves.

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Aloe vera is a flower plant, and different locations have different varieties of flowers, though they all grow in almost the same way. These flowers grow on a long, thick stalk, out of the center of the plant. The flowers will form a cylindrical pattern on the top of the stalk, some pointing straight upwards, others perpendicular to the ground, and others hanging down.

These plants prefer soil that drains easily and that is actually fairly sandy. This is why it grows so heartily in regions of the world were most other plants do not grow and why it is very easy for individuals to cultivate if they so wish. It requires very little water and very little attention, and it still grows well and produces very useful, functional leaves, even if you forget to water it for days and sometimes even weeks.

Though it is supposedly from the African continent, it is no longer given cultivation status in the Americas, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, where it has grown for so long that it is now considered to be a naturalized plant. What makes aloe vera special is that it neither threatens other populations of plants, nor is threatened by them. It is safe for animals and is safe from animals. It can grow just about anywhere, is resilient to both heat and cold, can heal itself when damaged, and can go for a very, very long time without water. These properties are part of what makes this plant so beneficial to humans.

Medicinal Uses of Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is extremely popular in traditional medicine and it has a long history, as you have read, across many different cultures. It is one of the most effective traditional cures, with scientific research showing that it can actually do many of the things that it is purported to do, ranging from lower cholesterol levels to helping to regulate blood sugar levels to soothing inflammation both on the skin and inside the body.

Gel or juice made from the rind of the leaf is extremely bitter, but is also useful as a laxative for those who are struggling with constipation. The gel inside of the leaves is what most people use to fight inflammation. Most commonly used externally to help moisturize the skin, promote healing, and soothe burns and rashes, it is now also becoming very popular to drink the gel or juice made from the leaves for a range of other reasons.

Aloe Vera a Versatile Plant

There are many different types of aloe, but aloe vera is the most famous and the most useful. It has a surprisingly long reach and a surprisingly effective biology that makes it ideal for a number of different applications. It grows as well in rocky terrain as it does in nourishing soil, and is now naturally occurring on almost every continent and region, so that even those who do not want to cultivate it themselves have access to fresh aloe vera.

It is very important to note that taking too much aloe vera could be harmful (just as taking too much of anything could be harmful), so research usage before breaking off a leaf and trying to use it.

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    • Sam Shepards profile image
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      Sam Shepards 10 days ago from Europe

      Thanks, I'm happy to see you enjoyed the article and especially that you also care for this nice plant.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 12 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I love my Aloe Vera garden. But I am getting ready to plant some that are much larger. Mine are great for skin but to small to really make a good drink with. Great Article