The aloe plant, that staple of kitchen counters everywhere, does more than soothe burned skin. The aloe most well-known to gardeners, aloe vera, makes a handsome ornamental plant inside or out. Its famous gel treats dry skin and itchy scalp--and even helps rid indoor air of dangerous toxins.
Aloes generally grow no taller than 2 feet. Their long, pointed leaves extend from the base of the plant, which bears no stem. Leaves, usually described as "fleshy," feature spikes along the edges and often white patches along the length of the plant. The cut leaves exude a clear gel which is easily squeezed from the leaves. In late summer, many aloes bear a flowering spike of orange or yellow flowers, as well as side shoots.
Aloe vera is a tender perennial. Gardeners who experience winters which don't dip lower than 45 degrees can keep the plant outside year-round. Northern growers should content themselves with keeping aloes as houseplants, perhaps moving them to the patio during the summer.
Propagate aloes from mature plants by cutting off side shoots during the summer. Let these shoots dry for two days before placing them in a planting medium consisting of one part sand to two parts potting soil or compost.
Position aloes where they will receive full sun or light shade, and give them soil in the gritty side. Add sand to the planting hole if it tends toward a clay texture. Because they form part of the succulent plant family, aloes work well with other succulents or Mediterranean herbs in a rock garden.
More than 350 aloe species exist. Aloe vera (known botanically as Aloe barbadensis) contains the famous healing gel, while Aloe perryi produces a violet dye once so valuable that it is believed to have been Alexander the Great's motivation for conquering the aloe-rich island of Socotra in the fourth century B.C. Other aloes suitable as houseplants include lace aloe and variegated aloe.
Famous as a living first-aid kit for the kitchen, the aloe vera plant will happily grow in most rooms. Like most succulents, aloes prefer to be near windows which will provide a warm temperature during the day but a cooler climate at night. South-facing windows work well, but shade may be required during the day in the summer. They only need to be watered every month or two in the winter, and slightly more frequently--when their soil dries out--in other months.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted research in the 1980's to determine which houseplants helped clean up dangerous toxins, including formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene. The research found aloe vera to be the only succulent to effectively clean the air. Use aloe in conjunction with other houseplants, such as spider plants, bamboo palm and English ivy, to help prevent "sick building syndrome."
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine confirms aloe's effectiveness in treating wounds and burns, but warns against the traditional use of taking it orally as a laxative.
Herbalist Lesley Bremness suggests treating small burns by breaking off a small aloe vera leaf and applying to the burn. For burns over a larger area, squeeze the gel from a large, split leaf and bandage in place. Always seek medical help for serious burns.
The gel may also soothe itchy scalps and chapped or sunburned skin, as well as eczema and dermatitis.