What is Aloe Vera, Anyway?
Aloe vera is classified as a succulent. Although its origins are in dispute, many experts believe common aloe vera to be a native of northern Africa. Today it is cultivated or grows wild in many sub-tropical and tropical regions around the globe. A medicinal, cosmetic and ornamental plant in the lily family, it has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. Aloe can reach a height of about 36 inches and typically spreads by sending out offshoots referred to as "pups."
|Aloe vera - cut with gel|
The plant's upright leaves are tapered and fleshy and have toothed margins that can scratch. (They're not as nasty as cactus spines, but worth avoiding). Leaves can grow to over 2 inches across and a half-inch thick. Aloe is about 94 percent water, most of it stored in its thick, rubbery leaves. Some of the almost 300 identified species also have faint whitish spots on their leaves, a common characteristic of medicinal aloe.
How to Grow Aloe Vera
Of all the herbs widely available to gardening enthusiasts, aloe probably requires the least amount of care and attention. It's pest resistant, drought tolerant and indifferent poor or barren soil. It's a good candidate for xeriscaping, rock gardens and specimen gardens, too.
Ideally, it prefers reasonably light soil that drains well. (Avoid heavy clay soils. Supplement dense soil with sand, cactus potting mix or succulent potting mix). It is hardy from zones 9 to 11 as an outdoor resident, where seedlings or pups should be planted about three feet apart. It may also grow in protected areas of zone 8.
For other locations, aloe is a successful commuter plant -- a potted outdoor resident in summer that winters indoors.Note: In areas that experience fierce heat in summer, it benefits from dappled light during the hottest part of the day.
Aloe vera also makes a nice year round houseplant if you can give it 6 to 8 hours of bright light (not direct sunlight) a day. If you can't provide enough natural light, it responds very well to the addition of grow lights. Although these plants can grow large, even in pots, they're somewhat shallow rooted. Pots don't have to be deep. Provide plenty of surface area, and let plants become crowded. You can often harvest pups from the sides of the container while leaving the center undisturbed. (More on that next time.)
Aloe Vera and Frost
The one thing aloe cannot tolerate is frost. When nighttime temperatures reach 38 degrees F, it's time to bring plants indoors for the season. The only time I've ever lost an aloe vera plant, it was outdoors on the patio when the temperature dipped to 32 degrees F. unexpectedly. A few protected pups survived, but that was it. The poor thing looked melted. Imagine what happens to lettuce when it wilts and you've got the idea. I wanted to cry.
I'm going to share an embarrassing admission here: One year I had a huge potted aloe vera that was so large that transporting it outdoors was a chore. I'm not sure how big the pot was, but in the fall I decided it would be best to break it up -- for the sake of my husband's aching back.
I was a little reluctant to start the project, but the pot was overflowing and beginning to crack from the weight of all those water hungry leaves. The overhaul left me with six large (12 inch) pots full of mid-sized aloe vera offshoots and lots of tiny pups. The bounty was so enormous that I had trouble finding room for everything indoors.
Here's the embarrassing part: One 12 incher ended up in a prep area near a small window in the garage. I remember passing the plant during the winter months thinking I'd head back that way to water it, but never did. Between November and April, I watered the plant exactly once. By spring, the leaves weren't as chubby as they should have been, but the aloe recuperated just fine after two weeks in a protected location outdoors and a couple of light spring rains. This illustrates a few things:
- The plants can survive neglect.
- Aloe vera goes virtually dormant during the late fall and winter months.
- Overwintering aloe indoors isn't really much of a chore.
|Aloe vera - tubular flower|
Because there's so much ground to cover on this topic (no pun intended), I'm going to discuss other aspects of growing and using aloe in my next post. I'll leave you with a list of alternative names for this interesting plant:
- Aloe barbadensis
- Aloe capensis
- Barbados aloe
- Burn aloe
- Burn plant
- Cape aloe
- Curacao aloe
- Elephant's gall
- First aid plant (This is my personal favorite.)
- Lily of the desert
- Miracle plant
- Plant of immortality
- True aloe
*Special note: There have been cases where the topical application of aloe vera gel has caused contact dermatitis.
WebMD. "Aloe Vera." http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-607-Aloe+Vera+ALOE.aspx?activeIngredientId=607&activeIngredientName=Aloe+Vera+(ALOE)&source=2&tabno=1
Lyons, Gary. "The Definitive Aloe Vera, Vera?" http://huntingtonbotanical.org/Desert/Cholla/feb06/feb06.htm#aloes
Schalau, Jeff. "Growing Aloe Vera." Arizona Cooperative Extension. http://ag.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/archive/aloevera.html
The Old Farmer's Almanac. "Aloe Vera." http://www.almanac.com/plant/aloe-vera
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