I still remember when I was a clumsy little girl, practicing gymnastics in the backyard, all those times I scraped my knee or cut my hand on a sharp blade of grass. I’d go running to my mom, who would give me a hug and then head straight for the kitchen. She’d re-emerge, scissors in hand, marching towards our aloe vera plant to snip me a piece of the healing goodness. I’d take it from her, holding it in front of me as if it were the holy grail, and squeeze it onto my cut. It was gooey and slimy and gave my skin a greenish tinge. I guess I’d have loved it even more if I’d been a boy. But it always made my cuts heal up nice and fast, and I just loved the fact that it came from a house plant, rather than from the store.
We always had an aloe vera plant in our house — sometimes more than one, even. Now I know why. My mom is a fantastic gardener now, but she didn’t always have a green thumb. Back when she was working full time and didn’t have much time for housework, aloe vera was the only plant she could keep alive. It’s an easy, gardening for dummies-type plant. Plus, it serves a purpose other than cleaning the air around it, and it turns out, it has far more uses than simply healing scraped knees.
In this article, we’ll explore the history of the aloe plant, discuss the five main varieties of the plant, delve into its multitude of uses and benefits, and then go through a step-by-step tutorial on how to grow and care for an aloe vera plant of your very own.
History of the aloe vera plant
The aloe vera plant has a long and storied history, and has made its name as one of the oldest plants on record due to its vast medicinal properties and health benefits. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese cultures both mentioned treating burns, wounds, and fever with the aloe plant. Indeed, the Egyptians were the first to record the nourishing benefits of the aloe vera plant some 6,000 years ago; even Cleopatra is said to have incorporated aloe into her daily skin regime. They thought of aloe as a sacred plant, its “blood” holding the secrets to beauty, health, and immortality, and embalmed their dead with it due to its antibacterial and antifungal qualities.
Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered the Americas with the help of aloe vera, which grew in plant pots in his armada of ships. It was used to heal the wounds of his crews. The Mayans also knew of the plant, and referred to it as the “Fountain of Youth”. In the 16th century, wild aloe was cultivated by Spanish Jesuit monks, who spread it into areas it did not naturally grow.
Legend has it that Alexander the Great conquered Africa’s island of Socotra for its vast aloe supplies, which he needed to treat his wounded troops. Japanese people wounded from the horrific atomic bomb in 1944 reported applying aloe gel to their wounds, and found their skin healed faster, with less scarring.
Different varieties of aloe plants
Many, many different types of aloe vera plants exist with varying thicknesses of leaves, rigidity, colors, and more.
There are over 400 types of aloe plants, but the five most popular are the most common in houses and gardens around the world. Let’s look at each one in some detail.
Stone Aloe – Aloe Petricola
Known for its thick vibrant red, orange, and yellow flowers that adorn the center top of the plant, the Aloe Petricola is easily identifiable, and makes it one of the more aesthetically pleasing variations of the aloe plant. This species of aloe vera grows up to 2 feet high and 3 feet wide, with long, blue-green leaves that are broad-based and narrow-tipped and turn inwards, giving the plant a somewhat round shape. Stone aloe, as it’s also known, is said to improve air quality, and is used to heal minor burns and wounds.
Climbing Aloes – Aloe Ciliaris
Aloe Ciliaris is known as Climbing Aloe for good reason: it can climb and grow up to 5 meters in length. This plant is thin, tall, and rapidly growing. It’s easily identifiable with its large orange and red flowers, particularly by sunbirds and bees, which flock to the plant. Its soft, white, hair-like teeth grow all the way along the margins of the leaves, to the base of the plant. An annual that blooms year round, the Climbing Aloe makes an excellent house plant, so long as it’s correctly supported, as it tends to form into an untidy, straggly shrub-like if not properly cared for.
Cape Aloe – Aloe Ferox
Cape Aloe, Bitter Aloe, Tap Aloe, Red Aloe, Kaapse Alwyn (Africaans), Kapaloe (Swedish)…Aloe Ferox goes by many names. This variation of the aloe plant is quite popular due to its bitterness and skin nourishing properties that make it ideas for skin care and medicinal use. The plant’s thick, fleshy leaves are a dull green, sometimes with a slightly blue tinge, with reddish-brown spines on the margins. Its red flowers grow between 1 to 4 feet from its leaves, and the entire plant can grow up to 10 feet tall.
Coral Aloe – Aloe Striata
The Aloe Striata plant is also known as the Coral Aloe plant, due to colorful leaves, varying in tint from pale grey-green to bronze and brown with a pinkish tinge, which it takes on when put under the stress of the beating sun. Often confused for its cousin, the Aloe Striatula, the Coral Aloe plant is actually quite different. These strong, single-branched, stemmed stealthy plants survive well in hot, dry climates, and make a beautiful succulent that cleans the air around it, though it usually lies on the ground as the plant grows older. Its rigid-to-fleshy leaves grow up to 20 inches long and 8 inches wide, with dull red flowers that appear swollen at the base of their tubular shape.
Lace Aloe – Aloe Aristata
Known as Lace Aloe, Torch Plant, or Guinea Fowl Aloe, Aloe Aristata is a white-speckled stemless, clump-forming succulent with deep green leaves and large red-orange flowers that can grow up to 20 inches, attracting all kinds of bees, insects, and birds. The dark green leaves grow up to 4 inches long, with soft, white spines. This variation of the aloe plant has the majority of its healing in its roots, which are known as therapeutic and are therefore highly sought after by cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies for this reason.
Aloe vera gel, juice, and latex, explained
Aloe vera gel has been called the Fountain of Youth, and for good reason — this stuff really helps heal.
You can get aloe vera in a few different forms: there’s that slimy clear jelly-like substance we’re all familiar with that comes directly out of the plant, which can be applied to wounds, etc., or can be blended into juice for use in smoothies and juices, or what have you. The gel is made by the cells in the middle of the leaf. Then there’s something called aloe vera latex, which comes from and is made by the cells just under the plant’s skin, and is yellow in color. This part of the plant tends to be taken orally, mainly for relief of constipation, but is quite bitter and can be toxic in large quantities.
Uses of Aloe Vera Plants
The gel and juices that can be found inside the aloe vera plant are what have made it into the popular herbal remedy of yesterday and today. This versatile plant has a variety of uses. Here are the most popular.
💡Tip: Get the most possible gel/ juice out of your aloe leaf by slitting the spike lengthwise and scooping out the contents with a spoon.
- Burn healer: Aloe vera has been studied extensively for its burn healing properties. One study showed it to be even more effective than a 1 percent silver sulfadiazine cream, while also being significantly less expensive. The aloe gel should be applied 3 to 4 times per day on the affected area to soothe, heal, and prevent scarring.
- Oral health: Aloe vera is often used in toothpastes and mouthwashes, for its ability to reduce levels of candida, plaque, and gingivitis, contributing to better overall oral health.
- Fight acne: Fresh aloe is not only effective at clearing up mild-to-moderate acne, lowering inflammation levels and reducing lesions, but also tends to be less irritating than traditional acne treatments.
- Anti-aging: Aloe vera gel moisturizes and softens the skin, lightens stretch marks and shrinks warts, and reduces the look of wrinkles.
- Antibacterial: Aloe is known to improve digestive tract function, improve symptoms of IBS, and inhibit the growth of bacteria in your digestive tract that can lead to ulcers.
- Anal fissure relief: Those with anal fissures, even the chronic kind, will find relief from applying aloe vera gel to the affected area throughout the day. Aloe vera has been shown to reduce pain, hemorrhaging, and improve healing.
- Healthy immune system: Aloe vera promotes a healthy immune system, and also promote nutrient absorption, while reducing nitrates that result from poor digestion and metabolism.
- Ayurveda: The ancient Indian medicinal system of Ayurveda incorporates aloe vera into its remedies for treating skin conditions, as well as improving the digestive and immune system.
- Acidity/Heartburn: Aloe vera is known as a natural way to balance stomach acidity, making it an ideal natural cure for anyone who suffers from heartburn.
- Digestion/Constipation: Aloe vera is known to loosen the bowels, and its laxative properties are often used to relieve constipation. This property also helps it fight water retention.
- Muscle pains: With its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, aloe vera is effective at treating muscle and joint pains.
- Weight loss: Aloe is said to boost the metabolism, due to its presence of vitamin B, which converts the body’s fat stores into energy, thereby aiding weight loss.
- Anti-fungal: Aloe vera gel is not only antibacterial and antiviral, but also anti-fungal, due to its naturally occurring antiseptic quality.
- Cancer and AIDS: Scientists have long been researching and experimenting with aloe vera for its potential to cure cancer and AIDS. Currently, those suffering from HIV/AIDS sometimes ingest an aloe-derived chemical called acemannan. This chemical facilitates nutrient absorption by cells, which helps them detoxify.
- High cholesterol: Aloe vera has been used since ancient times to balance cholesterol levels, while reducing high blood pressure and improving overall circulation in the body.
- Sunburn: Aloe vera is probably best-known (in the tropics, at least) for its sunburn healing properties. Research shows that the gel, when applied to sunburnt skin, significantly aids and speeds up the healing process, often preventing healing when applied diligently. Use 100% aloe vera gel that’s been chilled for best results.
- Diaper rash: Just as aloe soothes a sunburn, it soothes a baby’s bottom that’s red from diaper rash. Parents can feel free to use the gel directly from the plant, which is gentle enough for a baby’s skin, or store-bought aloe, so long as it’s in its pure form (100% aloe).
- Dandruff and psoriasis: Aloe vera gel contains several bioactive compounds, like amino acids and antioxidants, that help reduce dandruff. This, combined with its anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness and itchiness, make it extremely effective at fighting dandruff and psoriasis. If using an aloe vera cream for this purpose, look for one with at least 0.5% aloe vera.
💡Tip: To ingest aloe orally, be sure to wash the gel or skin thoroughly, removing the aloe vera latex, which has a bitter taste and is known to cause harmful side effects. Once your gel is washed and ready, simply add 2 tablespoons of the substance for every 1 cup of liquid, such as fruit juice or a smoothie, and blend.
There are so many things this miracle gel can do.
Is aloe vera safe?
Though aloe vera is gentle and causes significantly less irritation than other types of skin or medicinal treatments, some people have been known to develop skin irritations and allergic reactions from it. The gel should never be used on cuts or burns that are quite serious. Test a small amount on a tiny patch of skin before applying to the affected area, to be sure it won’t make it worse.
Aloe vera latex tends to have a mild laxative effect, which can cause diarrhea in some people. The latex should only be taken in small doses, as it can be toxic in large doses. Pregnant/ breastfeeding women should avoid ingesting aloe vera of any kind, though applying it externally is absolutely fine. Aloe vera should also not be taken internally by those with hemorrhoids, kidney conditions, renal disorder, cardiac conditions, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, intestinal obstruction, or diabetes.
Anyone taking aloe vera internally should be aware that it can potentially cause kidney problems, low potassium, muscle weakness, nausea or stomach pain, electrolyte imbalances, and should watch out for blood in their urine.
💡Tip: People with garlic, onion, or tulip allergies tend to be more likely to be allergic to aloe vera as well.
Facts about the aloe vera plant
The aloe vera is a fascinating plant. Here are some interesting facts about this cactus-like succulent.
- There are around 250 species of aloe vera, though just five of those are actually cultivated
- The most cultivated species of aloe vera is the Barbadensis
- Aloe originated in the Arabian Peninsula, and is native to tropical regions
- Wild aloe vera can survive for a century
- An adult aloe vera plant will reach maturity at around 3 to 4 years of age, and will grow up to 30 inches with as many as 21 leaves
- Aloe vera is one of the most studied plants in the world
- The plant’s gel contains more than 200 biologically active components, such as amino acids, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and polysaccharides
- Aloe vera gel is 96% water — which is why it can stand up to desert conditions
- Aloe features 75 health-giving nutrients
This hardy plant can withstand drastic temperature changes, including frost and even snow.
Materials for repotting an aloe vera plant
Since this is a beginner-friendly plant, aloe vera doesn’t require many materials. You really only need four basic tools — one of which is simply tap water — to get started, with a few optional tools that will make your life easier, but aren’t totally necessary for the process.
Aloe vera is an excellent plant to introduce to your garden or home, because it produces new, smaller plants that are ideal for propagation. In the coming step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through how to separate an aloe vera plant baby from its mommy and repot it in its own pot, to grow into a whole new adult aloe vera plant.
Here’s what you’ll need to replant your aloe vera babies:
- Mummy aloe plant (babies attached) — we like this Costa Farms Aloe Plant
- Potting Soil — we like this Miracle Grow Cactus, Palm and Citrus Soil
- Planting pots (small) — we like this set of four Cylinder Ceramic Planters with Connected Saucer
- Watering can — we like this WitnyStore vintage Watering Pot
- Plant feed — we like this Miracle-Gro Shake ‘N Feed plant food
- Gardening gloves — we like this Pine Tree Tools Bamboo Working Gloves
- Knife — we like this PGCOKO Garden Grafting Pruning Knife
Step-by-step guide to repotting an aloe vera plant
Planting your aloe vera plant is a pretty straightforward process, which is why it makes a great project for anyone just getting started at gardening. Here’s our step-by-step guide to repotting an aloe vera plant.
1. Remove baby aloe vera plants from their mommy
Be gentle as you remove the aloe vera pups from their mom
Carefully pull out the aloe vera babies from the mommy plant from their root. If the baby roots are attached to the mommy plant and don’t come away easily, use a knife to cut them at the base.
💡Tip: Baby aloe plants are referred to as “pups” in the gardening world.
2. Clean the root
Be sure to get all the dirt off your aloe vera pups, for best repotting results.
Clean the dirt and excess skin from around the aloe vera root, so that you’re left with a naked, white root that’s free from dirt.
3. Let calluses form
Leave your aloe pups overnight or longer, so they form calluses that will protect them from the elements under the soil.
After cleaning your babies, leave them overnight, or even up to 10 days, to air-dry and form a callus. Keep the babies in an airy, dry place, out of direct sunlight. This step prevents fungal infections in the cuttings, and promotes a successful re-rooting.
4. Fill your plant pot with soil
You can use a small garden shovel to fill your pot with soil.
Use high-quality top soil (cactus soil works well for succulents like aloe) and fill your plant pot just ⅔ of the way, and not all the way to the rim.
This will prevent the pot from overflowing with mud in the rain.
💡Tip: Make sure your pot has plenty of holes, because aloe requires a lot of rain and holes ensure the plant doesn’t become oversaturated with water. Also, try to select a plant pot that’s as wide as it is deep, and gardeners tend to prefer terracotta pots for aloe plants, because they dry faster.
5. Water your soil
Flood your pot with water from your watering can to get it ready for the aloe pup.
Get your soil nice and moist by watering it before planting. This will help the roots take better to their new environment.
6. Make a hole for your baby aloe vera plant
It’s easy to make space in your soil for your aloe pup — simply stick your finger in the middle.
Take your index finger and make a hole about 1 inch deep.
💡Tip: If your stem is too long for the pot, it is possible to trim it, but proceed with caution, as this could kill the plant. If you’re a beginner gardener, it’s best to simply select aloe pups that will fit into your selected pot.
7. Insert your aloe vera plant into the hole
The hole you made in the soil with your finger should be the perfect size to fit your aloe pup stem.
Place the aloe plant in the hole and then compress the soil around it. Make sure it’s in the soil firmly, standing up straight.
8. Place the planted aloe in indirect sunlight
Your planted aloe pup should now be placed in a spot where it will receive sunlight, but not directly.
Find a home for your aloe vera babies that provides bright, indirect sunlight, for six to eight hours per day. The plant does not flourish in sustained direct sunlight, which dries it out and turns its leaves yellow.
9. Leave for one week
Give your aloe pups the cold shoulder for a while.
Once you’ve planted your aloe pups, you should just ignore them for a week. Really! Don’t water it for a full seven days — this decreases the chances of rot, and allows the plant time to put out new roots.
10. Let grow for up to 3 months
If planted and cared for properly, your aloe vera plant will most certainly prosper.
The babies can remain to flourish in these pots for 3 to 4 months, before needing to be replanted into larger pots. Of course, don’t leave your plant alone altogether — water it approximately every three weeks, never letting it sit in water for long periods, and allowing the soil to dry 1 to 2 inches deep between waterings. Remember, this is a succulent desert plant, so it thrives on relatively dry conditions.
💡Tip: The best time to repot your baby aloe plant is in springtime, as these plants flourish and grow the fastest between April and September in most climates.
💡Tip: If your aloe vera plant hasn’t yet had any babies, you can still try to start a new plant by simply cutting off a few leaves. Trim the leaf to about 3 inches from its tip, and place the leaf cut end downwards in your soil-filled pot. Not all leaves will take, but some will. You’ll know they’ve taken because they sprout tiny new leaves at their base. Allow your new plant to grow a few inches at least before you repot it.
Caring for your aloe vera plant
Now that you’ve planted your aloe vera, you’ll want to know how to care for it. Here are some tips.
Caring for your aloe plant outdoors
If you live in a mild climate, you’re lucky that you will be able to grow a wide variety of aloe plants in your outdoor garden. The best aloe vera plants for outdoor use are Aloe Arborescens and Aloe Ferox, which are hardy enough for rough conditions. Once planted, aloe doesn’t require much special care, so long as it has plenty of indirect sunlight and the soil remains loose and gritty.
Planting your aloe in a container outdoors will allow you to easily bring it inside, should frosty weather threaten their survival. If you’ve planted your aloe in the ground, though, simply cover it with a large plastic container during a short frost. For longer cold bouts, spread a thick mulch or straw around the root to protect it from the harsh temperatures. Remember, aloe vera plants are 96% water, so when the frost hits, it will freeze any unprotected leaves and turn them to mush.
Keep an eye out for the pests that love the aloe vera plant, like mealy bugs, which are flat and brown/tan. These bugs like to suck on the aloe sap. A natural, non-toxic pesticide should be enough to protect your plant.
💡Tip: When you reintroduce aloe to the outdoors, once the cold has lifted, do so gradually by exposing it to light for just a few hours a day at first, in increasingly brighter and brighter spots, to prevent sunburn and help the plant “acclimatize”.
Caring for your aloe plant indoors
Place your aloe vera houseplant in bright light, ideally on a south- or west-facing window. As with the outdoor plant, be careful not to overwater your aloe vera plant. The soil should be allowed to completely dry before the plant is watered. When you do water it, drench the soil completely, but ensure the water drains from the soil through the holes in the bottom of its plant pot. Overwatering or lack of proper drainage are the most common mistakes people make with their aloe vera plants, which causes root rot and can attract fungus.
💡Tip: To provide your aloe vera plant with the ultimate in care, use rainwater. This means that when it rains, your aloe plant gets watered, and when it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t. This way, you’re replicating the aloe plant’s natural environment. That said, don’t try to do this when your area is experiencing a drought.
💡Tip: If you choose to fertilize your aloe vera plant, do so one a year in springtime, with a phosphorus-heavy fertilizer that’s water-based. You only need to apply it at half-strength, as aloe vera plants don’t really need to be fertilized. Only fertilize in the spring and summer months, when the plant will be flourishing and growing. Don’t fertilize in the winter, as the plant will be in its dormant stage.