Of the approximately 250 species of aloes, aloe vera is the most widely known. Some have hailed it as a miracle plant and cure-all. Although some of its benefits are not medically proven, it is useful for minor skin irritations and burns. Many people have a plant in their windowsill to help treat minor mishaps.
The natural habitat of aloe vera is uncertain. Humans have been using and spreading this plant for over 6,000 years, leaving its origins lost in time. It may have originated somewhere around the Mediterranean or in Africa, or it may be an ancient hybrid. Ancient Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Indian writings mention using aloe vera as a medicine. Its introduction to the Americas was through the early Spanish explorers.
Aloe vera is a succulent plant that grows in a rosette shape. The fleshy leaves grow from a central point and can reach lengths of up to 2 feet. They are spike-shaped, tapering to a point with spines along the edges. Young plants have mottled light green leaves, and mature plants have solid light green leaves. They have 2-foot-long flower stalks with yellow, tube-shaped flowers.
Aloe vera likes warm, dry climates that do not freeze. It is an excellent plant for indoor containers in a sunny window. It can be grown outside in the summer and overwintered indoors as well. It needs full sun to light shade and a well-draining soil that is allowed to dry between waterings. Small plantlets that form at the base of the mother plant can be removed and replanted.
Aloe vera is primarily grown for its medicinal properties but it also makes an attractive houseplant or landscape plant as well. The slimy sap from inside the leaves is used to treat burns, skin wounds and insect bites, or it can be eaten so it works as a laxative. Many different cosmetics, medicines and skin treatments contain aloe vera. It is widely grown in large quantities around the Caribbean islands as well as in southern Florida, Texas and Mexico.
Aloe vera should not be used as a substitute for visiting a doctor. Use it to bring relief to minor burns, scrapes and mosquito bites. Simply pull a leaf off of a plant or cut it with a sharp knife, then slice it open lengthwise and lay it on top of the wound with the sap side down. It should never be used on open or deep wounds. Some people may have an allergic skin rash in reaction to aloe vera.