Aloe is the name given to a family of plants of which there are more than 200 species worldwide--most native to Africa. Different cultures have used aloe for various domestic products over the centuries. From medicine to beauty aids and food, this well-known plant has been in continuous use for at least 4,000 years.
Aloe vera, or Barbados aloe is the name most frequently attributed to aloe barbadensis (also sometimes A. perfoliate or A. vulgaris). Aloe vera is a perennial, semi-tropical, succulent plant that is most often recognized by its fat, fluid-filled leaves (about 95 percent water) edged in blunt spines. The seldom-seen coral-colored flowers bloom on older plants in summer on a stalk arising from the plant's center. (To ensure adequate light for blooming, take potted plants outdoors for the summer.)
Aloe has been used as a burn remedy for thousands of years, but it is also used to treat minor wounds and skin irritations; taken internally to relieve irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers and as a laxative. It is touted as a cold sore remedy, a home remedy for asthma (in a vaporizer), headaches, arthritis, coughs, vaginal irritations and even diabetes. Some of the medicinal claims may have factual basis, while others remain unproven. Never use any plant in a homemade preparation without first consulting a reputable authority or physician.
In addition to its medical properties, aloe vera gel and whole leaves are used to make skin care products--particularly moisturizers, balms and salves--and in cosmetics. There is also increasing interest in aloe juice and gel for health food products. The aloe juice is bitter, so it is often combined with fruit juices or (as they do in Japan) with yogurt to make it taste better. In India, aloe is prepared in curry.
Texts from ancient Sumeria (2100 B.C.) describe laxative benefits in taking ground whole leaf aloe. The Egyptians, who boiled the aloe leaves, reported in papyrus writings from as far back as 1500 B.C. (and in another from 400 B.C.) several benefits to the digestive system and uses for the healing of both internal and external ailments. Aloe was traded extensively in the Middle East and Asia at least 2,500 years ago and is mentioned in several Greek references (including Pliny) as far back as 50 B.C. Interest in this ancient "wonder drug" remains strong and unabated.
As a tropical plant, aloe will not survive outdoors except in USDA Hardiness Zones 10 and 11--the only areas warm enough for year-round outdoor growing. In the United States, only Texas, Arizona, California and Florida grow aloe on a commercial scale outdoors (parts of Texas, northern Mexico and the West Indies produce most of the aloe vera for the entire world), but practically everyone who loves indoor plants has at least one pot of aloe in cultivation. It is an easy-care plant requiring little water, only moderate soil fertility and well-drained soil.