"Aloe vera" means "true aloe." Its botanical name is Aloe barbadensis, and it is native to the continent of Africa. It is also called "the miracle plant," "the medicine plant," "the natural healer" and "the plant of immortality" in reference to its medicinal properties recognized worldwide. There are more than 400 different species of the aloe plant.
In addition to aloe vera, this plant is called Curacao aloe, Barbados aloe and lily of the desert. The word "aloe" comes from the Arabic "alloeh," which means "bitter." Its many names are an indication of the multiple tropical locations where the aloe vera plant grows today, including Latin America and the Caribbean.
The aloe vera is a flowering succulent with fleshy, green lanceolate leaves that have serrated edges. Although it looks like a cactus, the aloe vera is actually a member of the Liliaceae or lily family.
There are four layers to each aloe leaf. The outer layer is the rind. The next layer is the liquid sap, which is bitter in taste and therefore protects the plant from foraging animals. The mucilage gel forms the third layer. The aloe vera gel is the fourth layer. The composition of aloe vera is 95 percent water, and the rest includes essential oils, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and glycoproteins.
The aloe vera plant is slow growing. It prefers indirect light and not too much sunshine or water. It cannot tolerate frost. It can grow in a pot indoors as well as outdoors, preferably in sandy soil with good drainage.
Awareness of the health benefits of the aloe vera plant dates back thousands of years. A Sumerian tablet from about 2100 B.C. and an Egyptian papyrus of around 1550 B.C. record the use of aloe vera. They are the earliest known descriptions of aloe vera. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and Indians all referred to aloe vera in their writings. According to legend, Alexander the Great ensured that there were sufficient supplies of aloe vera to treat his army's battle wounds, by conquering the Indian Ocean island of Socotra (now part of the Republic of Yemen), which had abundant aloe vera plants.
In Japan, aloe vera is an ingredient in yogurt. In the Philippines, it is a treatment for kidney infections when combined with milk. In India, aloe vera is among the ingredients used to make curry in the state of Tamil Nadu. The use of aloe vera gel to treat cuts and burns is common knowledge internationally.