PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

ALOE VERA

 

Common names:        

True Aloe, Medicine Plant, Burn Plant, Barbados Aloe  

 

Scientific name         Aloe vera, also known as Aloe barbadensis

Explanation of scientific name:       

Aloe - from the ancient Arabic name for the plant

vera - true or genuine

barbadensis -   from or of Barbados

Aloe vera growing on Peter Island of the British Virgin Islands.

Aloe vera is one of about 250 species of Aloes.  The Aloes are members of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and, therefore, are relatives of such common plants as tulips, Easter lilies, and asparagus.  Aloe vera is believed to be native to the Mediterranean, but its exact native habitat is unknown.  In the Old World the aloes have had a long history of economic use, and this species in particular has been carried around by people for so long that its original habitat has been lost in history.  In fact, some taxonomists believe that Aloe vera is not even a naturally developed species, but instead some ancient hybrid.  This may, in part, account for the use of two scientific names for the species.

Aloe vera is a leafy succulent that grows in a rosette fashion on hot, well-drained soils.  The leaves are spotted when young but take on a uniform light green color with age.  They can reach 2 feet in length and are edged with soft spines.  Older plants produce an 18-inch long stalk from the center of the rosette that is topped with nodding cylindrical yellow flowers about 1-inch long.

Interest in the sap of this species extends back over 2000 years.  It is bitter, slimy, and can be collected as an exudate from cut leaves or squeezed from the pulp of leaves.  Leaves from all aloes have long been credited with healing properties, but the especially succulent Aloe vera is valued most.

In the past, leaves were sliced and laid on the skin to relieve itching and to heal burns.  Today it is claimed to work effectively on sunburns, minor burns, wrinkles, insect bites, skin irritations, cuts and scratches.  A “tea” made from the dried sap of this species is said to make a good wash for wounds and the eyes.  Interest in Aloe vera’s healing properties has revived in recent decades in respect to its use as a treatment for radioactive burns.  Today’s consumer may be familiar with Aloe vera because extracts of its sap are found in many hand lotions and other skin care products.

The “aloe” of medicine is actually the compound aloin that is extracted from the sap of Aloe vera.  The major source of the raw sap today is the Netherlands Antilles, the true aloe having been introduced there several hundred years ago.  Aloin is still used as a cathartic (strong laxative) in various preparations.  The cathartic properties of even the raw sap have been documented for centuries.  Historically, physicians commonly prescribed aloe sap for “cleansing the body” of a variety of “toxins”. Applied to an infant’s thumb, it was a sure way to stop thumb sucking.

Aloe vera makes a sturdy, long-lived houseplant as long as it is given plenty of sunlight and is not over-watered.  Many home gardeners grow it on a windowsill so the sap is readily available.

An Aloe vera plant growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.