The Aloe vera is a succulent plant native to the dry, warm climates of northern Africa. While it resembles a cactus, it’s actually a member of the lily family and related to the onion. Though the unusual shape of its leaves may make it look strange, most of its parts are no different than those of other plants.
The Aloe’s roots are shallow and grow below the surface of the soil. They are worm-like and stringy, spreading out rather than rooting deeply. Occasionally, small young Aloe plant offshoots will begin to emerge from the roots. These offshoots, also known as “pups,” can be divided from the mother plant and replanted for propagation.
The Aloe stem is extremely short. It is so short that it can appear as though the leaves are growing right out of the ground, or, when you are transplanting an Aloe, it seems the leaves are growing right out of the roots in smaller plants. As the Aloe grows taller and sprouts more leaves, the stem grows thicker and more apparent. Removing leaves at the base of the plant will reveal some of the stem, though in a healthy, intact plant, the stem can be entirely obscured by leaves.
The leaves of the Aloe plant grow in a single rosette form from the base of the stem. They are thick and fleshy with spiny ridges, sometimes growing up to two feet in length and 3 or 4 inches wide at the base. Aloe leaves are green or gray-green in color when healthy. When in poor health, leaves may appear brown, thin, dried and shriveled. If a second, smaller rosette emerges at the base of the plant, this is not another set of leaves but a pup offshoot, which is an entirely new plant.
When the green skin of the leaf is cut, the Aloe will emit a yellowish-green sap known as aloin. It is a latex-based substance generally considered an irritant to humans and toxic to house pets. Avoid getting aloin on your skin when you are handling an Aloe plant. Aloin is also a laxative, occasionally taken internally in a tonic to promote regularity.
Beneath the surface of the leaf lies a pulp made up of a clear gel-like substance. Aloe gel has long been hailed for its medicinal properties. It is rubbed on the skin to heal irritations such as burns, bites and abrasions, or taken internally in a tonic to treat digestive problems.
Stalk and Flower
A stalk will sometimes grow from the center of the leaf rosette in the late winter or early spring. This stalk can be up to 3 feet tall but rarely grows in Aloe plants raised indoors. The stalk will bloom into a cluster of tubular yellow flowers, which hold the Aloe seeds. The seeds can be planted to propagate the plant.