Aloe vera (L.) Burm.f. (Asphodelaceae)


Aloe vera

The chances are you have Aloe vera at home even if you do not know it. This healing and moisturising plant can end up in a diverse range of products from conditioner and toothpaste through toilet rolls to washing powders.

The beneficial properties of this succulent have been known for a long time. It is said that Cleopatra used Aloe vera as part of her beauty regime and that Alexander the Great used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers. It is the clear, gelatinous sap in the centre of the leaves that is used for wound healing, as an anti-inflammatory and as a burn treatment. Within the leaf, substances known as glycoproteins speed healing and stop inflammation, whilst polysaccharides stimulate skin growth and repair. Although there is currently little medical evidence, Aloe vera is used by cancer patients to help heal and soothe burns caused by radiotherapy. Traditionally, the bitter yellow juice that is exuded from the green outer layer of the leaf was used as a powerful laxative.

The plant is native to the Arabian Peninsula but is now cultivated widely across the world. It is grown extensively throughout India and China and is naturalised throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, South America and the Caribbean.

As a succulent it is well suited to growing in arid conditions, where temperatures are high and rainfall low. The outer green layer of the leaf is thick and waxy, protecting the plant from water loss. Leaves grow in an attractive rosette pattern and form a dense, erect clump. They are often covered in a grey-green bloom and the plant is grown for its ornamental value. Although it may look prickly the leaves do not have true spines, making it an ideal houseplant.

The plant produces a tall flower spike with pale yellow, tubular flowers that often set seed. However, the plant also produces plantlets, known as 'pups', at its base. Potting the pups on is the easiest way to increase numbers. The plant is very easy to grow as a houseplant and this could be the best way to harness its full healing potential. Research on the beneficial effects of Aloe vera show that treatment is most effective if fresh sap from the plant is used as many of the active ingredients deteriorate over time. So, instead of buying an expensive lotion or cream, invest in a houseplant!

Further reading

Cancer Research UK 2014. Accessed January 2014.

Lewington A 2003. Plants for People. Eden Project Books.

Marinelli J 2004. Plant. Dorling Kindersley Publishers Ltd.

Royal Botanic Garden Kew 2014. Accessed January 2014.

University of Maryland Medical Centre 2014. Accessed January 2014.

World Health Organisation 2014. Accessed January 2014.

Emma Williams