The Amazing Aloe

Linda Knox
Adams County Master Gardener

Sometimes the most common plants in our home like the aloe, for example, have versatility that we never consider. A little research or even experimentation can bring to light especially interesting characteristics about these unassuming green friends.

According to Deni Brown’s Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses, 325 species of aloe exist, most native to Africa. A varied genus, to be sure, aloes range from the tallest, A bainesil, or "tree aloe" which can reach a maximum height of 60 feet, down to the smallest of a few inches. Semi-climbing aloes exist, also.

In this article we shall focus on the Aloe vera, or "Barbados aloe," Aloe barbadensis. Wall paintings surviving from Ancient Egypt portray this aloe which was used medicinally and also as an ingredient in the embalming formula. Historical evidence has revealed its use in 10th century Europe and in Chinese medicine about a century later.

Today, the aloe vera’s practical use in the kitchen appeals to cooks who have an occasional mishap at the stove. With a little tag explaining that the cook may snap off a leaf and apply the broken end to a burn injury, the aloe can be a popular bazaar item. It has even been nicknamed "the burn plant." Leaves taken from plants two years or older yield enough sap to treat small burns, but even younger ones will often suffice.

Aloe vera leaves can grow as long as two feet, and the flower spike with tubular yellow flowers may reach a height of three feet in summer. Aloes prefer well-drained soil and full sun but will tolerate partial shade.

Aloes are propagated by offsets any time of the year and make wonderful passalong plants. Potted plants are bothered by few pests, except mealy bugs, and may be placed almost anywhere outdoors as long as they receive some sunlight and strong indirect light most of the day.

Minimum temperatures for aloes are about 40ºF (5ºC). If temperatures dip suddenly on an autumn evening, these plants can weather the change with a simple covering or by placing them in a cardboard box with flaps to cover the top.

As a rule of thumb, water newly planted aloes until the soil is soaked through, but not again until the surface is completely dry. Aloes will accept poor soil but not poor drainage. Frequently, those who say they can’t grow aloes have one problem to overcome: they believe watering is needed often and in large quantity for growing every plant. Remember that aloes are succulents and are best watered sparingly and only every 2 or 3 weeks, depending on how porous the container is. Aloe plants tied securely in a plastic bag or other moisture-free, air-tight enclosure will remain green and healthy for several months if kept at room temperature.

Vacationers, who have returned to what they thought were dead plants, have been surprised to observe after watering lightly several times tiny new green leaves coming up near the side of the dried-up plant—a bold testimony to the aloe’s durability.

For the houseplant grower who wants to devote little time to upkeep, the aloe vera is ideal. Because of its slow growth habit, it can be expected to stay within the space allotted to it for quite some time. Although small plants multiply within a pot and become crowded, the pot circumference is all that’s needed for space planning. In an office or busy workplace, its sleek form does not have to be constantly trimmed and "groomed," a real plus for the designated caregiver.

Aloe vera may be planted out in regular garden soil. In a rock garden or on a sunny bank with xerophytic plants such as sedum and others capable of thriving in hot dry places, young aloes will continue to appear until time to lift them and the original plant prior to frost.

If there is any houseplant that will forgive your forgetfulness, it has to be the dependable, ever-resilient aloe. Forget to water it, forget to adjust curtains to increase direct light, forget to repot it, the amazing aloe will probably wait patiently for your overdue attention and be none the worse for wear.

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