So here we are, on the Zaytuna Farm Herb Tour. We met Yarrow here and after him, the most multi-functional plant I know, is our next guest, Aloe Vera. Aloe is a family of over 500 species (most of which have not been researched for medicinal purposes) but the most commonly used for medicinal benefits is Aloe Vera or Aloe vera barbadensis although Aloe arborescens or Candelebra or Tree Aloe is also used.
Aloe has come to us here and now, all the way from Africa and the Arabian peninsula. With thick, succulent leaves that end in a narrow point, edged with small sharp teeth, Aloe doesn’t necessarily look like a plant you need to know, but looks can be deceiving. The leaves grow from a central stem and can be 2-3cm thick and 5-10cm wide at the base. Leaves change colour as they age, with younger leaves usually a brighter green with white spots, and older leaves a duller grey-green.
Aloe will send up pups or suckers when she’s ready, baby plants that develop near the base of the mother plant, and can be repotted to propagate. Although she will also flower the pups are the easiest way to propagate aloe, provided you take a little care to get the roots when you move the pup. When Alos sends up flower stalks you’ll notice. They’re a striking sight, standing up straight and bright from the centre of the plant, above the height of the actual leaves. The flowers are tubular and turn from green to yellow at maturity.
Relatively easy to grow, as long as they are not over-watered, they grow well in the garden and in pots. Aloe is a sun-lover, and won’t take kindly to being left in full shade or in cold winters. If you’ve got cold winters, grow her in pots and relocate her to somewhere warm and sheltered in winter. The other option for cold climates is to grow Aloe arborescens who’s hardier and can deal with the chilly climes.
The leaves of Aloe are fat and juicy when she’s well cared for, but also fragile, and they’ll break quite easily, so best to keep her a little away from thoroughfares. Bugs don’t seem to like Aloe much, and a foliar spray to deter bugs can be made with the blended leaves or gel, mixed with a little soap or detergent. Aloe also makes a beneficial addition to a compost pile.
Aloe harvesting should be done when the leaves are plump. The leaves can be trimmed if you only need a little or cut off at the base if you need a bit more. As with harvesting most herbs and salad greens, it’s best to harvest the outside leaves first, giving the plant the chance to keep growing from it’s centre. Picked leaves will keep a couple of weeks or longer in the bottom draw of your fridge. When the leaf is first cut it releases a yellow sap, and should be stood (cut end down) for the sap to drain, and then the sap should be rinsed off. The gel is harvested by slicing the leaf lengthwise and then scraping the gel out with a spoon or blunt knife. Scoring the inside of the leaf will release more gel/juice.
Aloe is rarely eaten for the flavour or pleasure of one’s taste buds but what she lacks in distinctive flavour she makes up for in usefulness. She’s a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals and as a herbal medicine is a little one-leaf wonder. Aloe is analgesic, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antiperspirant, astringent, demulcent, detoxicant, emollient, emmenagogue, fungicidal, germicidal, laxative, purgative, soothing, vermifuge and vulnerary. She’s been used for medicinal purposes for over 5000 years, and possibly much longer. Ancient Egyptians wrote about her, and Cleopatra and Nefertiti reputedly bathed in aloe juice, which seems less practical for those of us who don’t have a country of workers at our beck and call, but can easily be replicated by applying fresh aloe gel after a shower. She can also be used as a hair conditioner, by applying the gel to the hair, either as a hair mask or as a leave in. Anecdotally, it also helps absorb excess oil in the hair.
More important than her cosmetic claims though, are her medicinal benefits. Aloe pulp is a soothing gel, a natural demulcent or mucilage, especially good for irritated skin and mucous membranes, sun and other burns, as an after-shave lotion and for damaged tissue. Aloe vera applied topically has the ability to penetrate seven layers of skin and body tissues, and penetrates four times faster than water. This is one of the reasons it makes a good poultice. Aloe gel can also be used as a toothpaste, and can relieve mouth ulcers, receding gums and inhibit bacteria.
Aloe is an excellent digestive aid, assisting the body to breakdown food and absorb nutrients, and by doing so also assists in weight loss. Aloe helps build the immune system and can help in cases of arthritis, inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, and degenerative diseases. Aloe may also benefit cancer patients, and Isabell Shipard’s book contains numerous anecdotes of people using aloe to treat cancers. It also contains stories of using Aloe to treat disease in animals.
It is most effective when fresh, and as a water-based product it is always sold with preservatives (regardless of what the label may say, as labelling laws vary), another reason to keep an aloe or two happily pottering on your sunniest windowsill, waiting for the day you need her. Straight from the living soil is the best way to absorb all her healing qualities, and saves you exposing yourself to the preservatives and synthetic chemicals that lace commercial aloe gels and creams. Another upside of having a houseplant called Aloe, is that they turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, improving indoor air-quality, and reducing toxins.
Aloe is a wonder, but as she warns you in her leaves, she’s not all soft and soothing. The outer leaf is a purgative and laxative and not recommended for children, pregnant women or the elderly. The pulp itself (without the green leaf) is not as strong and may be consumed by anyone (but if you’re concerned speak to a herbalist or doctor), however caution is still recommended for pregnant women (internal use of aloe may be a uterine stimulant) and breastfeeding mothers (aloe can have a laxative effect on breastfed babies, even if it doesn’t affect the mother). For the gel/pulp only, the recommended dosage is 25-100 grams per day. Overdoses can cause irritations to the digestive tract, diarrhoea and vomiting.
So that’s Aloe Vera, a powerful soothing healer with tracks back through time, as useful to those of us who use it today, as it was 5000 years ago, and a reminder that the natural world has been stacking functions, creatively responding to feedback and offering it’s treasures for millenia. Isn’t it time we offered a little appreciation in return? Getting yourself an aloe plant and using her to cut down on your waste (or waist), heal yourself and clean your air is a little act of permaculture anyone with a sunny spot can manage.
How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life by Isabell Shipard
The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne
The Complete Herbs Source Book by David Hoffman