Aloe vera: Dual Purpose Plant
I have rarely been without an Aloe vera plant in the last twenty years. Not only is it an attractive indoor plant, but it is useful. Countless pain-filled shrieks have been silenced by applying its sticky gel to cuts and burns experienced by children bent on risky exploration. The showy leaves can dress up any window, and its serrated edges and teeth discourage the most destructive pets. It is a miracle plant.
There are well over 250 species of Aloe plants and can range in size from miniatures standing only one inch in height to plants reaching 100 centimetres high and two feet in diameter. The most common is the Aloe barbadensis, or Aloe vera which means ‘true’ or ‘genuine’. Where the plant originated is unclear because it has been widely cultivated and used medicinally for millennia. It is thought that the original species may have started in North Africa, and the Canary and Madeira Islands. For four thousand years the plant has benefited mankind and is described in many ancient writings from Egypt, Greece, Rome, India and China. The earliest mention is found in Sumerian tablets. Legend has it that Alexander the Great conquered Socotra in the Indian ocean so as to obtain a supply of the beefy plant to treat his soldiers’ wounds.
The healing applications of the plant are wide and varied. Not only is it used for external cuts and first and second degree burns, but it is taken internally for conditions such as diabetes where some claim it improves glucose levels. Still others believe it can alleviate inflammation in ulcerative colitis. In other topical treatments, aloe vera is said to be valuable in relieving genital herpes and psoriasis. Studies have been conducted where aloe vera in combination with dentifrice has reduced gingivitis and plague. Our cosmetics and creams frequently include the compound. Many foods contain the gel. Yogurt, drinks and some desserts claim to relieve heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome. Some lesser known uses include it being a compound to dilute semen for sheep artificial fertilization. It is also a preservative for fresh food. In the future the seeds may produce biofuel. Worldwide cultivation of this unique plant is accomplished on a grand scale in Australia, China, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, India, Jamaica, Kenya, South Africa and the USA to meet the growing consumer demand. This popularity brings it into many gardens and homes, and caring for it is relatively simple.
Care of the Aloe vera plant
Because it is a succulent plant it does well in dry areas where rainfall is minimal, but because of its high concentration of water it doesn’t fare well under frosty conditions, and therefore can only be grown outside in zones ten and eleven. In more demanding zones the plant can be put outside in the summer in their pots, but must be brought back inside before frost. Indoor care is straight forward. The plant requires full sun and generous watering during the warmer months, but the soil should be allowed to dry between watering times. Winter watering should be reduced as the aloe enters dormancy. Their soil needs good drainage. Gravel in the bottom of the pot is recommended. Commercial soils for cacti provide the necessary drainage. During the summer fertilize regularly as you would for other houseplants. When repotting, choose a pot which tends to be wider rather than deeper as they have a shallow root system. If the plant is verging on being full grown, help may be required as they can be quite heavy and awkward to handle. If your plant needs to be repotted, separate the offshoots from the base and plant in their own pots. While the Aloe vera can be cultivated from seed, the offshoots provide easier propagation.
Your Aloe vera plant can provide years of enjoyment through their lush and unusual foliage, and years of service by way of their healing qualities. Prior to my last move I was privileged to have an almost full grown plant which dominated my balcony doors, and was the subject of conversation. While I had to leave it behind with a family member because transporting it a thousand miles in my car would have been daunting, I took one of its offshoots and thus in a way still have it. The second generation sits happily in a sun room and is on the way to fulfilling its parent’s bulk. I hope to see this one flower.