Aloe vera—or simply “aloe”—is thought to have first sprouted seed in Northern Africa, but has furthered its roots around the globe to India, Central America, Australia, the Caribbean and the southern United States. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension, aloe vera has been used medicinally for 6,000 years.
The University of Maryland Medical Center states that aloe was one of the most frequently used prescriptions during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s long since moved out from behind the pharmacy counter and onto the shelves (chances are it’s also freely propagating in a garden near you).
How aloe vera heals and works wonders
Even if you’ve never broken off a leaf and spread the thin, viscous, clear liquid over a recent burn, you’re probably aware that the “lifeblood” of an aloe vera plant can cool and heal burns, blisters, scratches and scrapes.
Aloe is 99% water, and the rest is made up of the important parts that directly affect human healing. Within that remaining 1%, there are polysaccharides (which help skin grow) and glycoproteins (which suppress pain and inflammation, kick-start the healing process).
Union County College offers two ways you can take advantage of aloe vera’s beneficial sap. First, you can try going old school by simply breaking off a leaf and let the liquid run across the burn or itchy area. Or you can boil up something more potent by brewing up the plant’s dried sap and use it—after cooling the liquid—as a wash-out for wounds.
Of course, aloe is so prevalent these days that it’s possible to completely skip the home-grown route entirely, whether it’s because you have a black thumb or simply prefer to let someone else do the work. You can find aloe vera extract everywhere. A short trip to a drugstore, pharmacy or holistic health store will reveal aloe vera in lotion, tincture, face wash, ointment and other products.
While some non-believers may toss claims about aloe’s “super powers” as bunk, holistic practitioners have touted its benefits for ailments such as diabetes, radiation-related mucositis, epilepsy and amenorrhea.
Aloe, as mentioned above, is proven to work on burns. (The latter is according to Wilkes University, where practitioners cited aloe’s “beneficial effects for treating epidermal and superficial disorders and wounds.”)
University of Maryland cites some interesting statistics about use of aloe on minor burns: In one study, burns that were dressed with aloe healed completely in less than 16 days, compared to the 19-day recovery period of those treated with silver sulfadiazine (the traditional medication prescribed by physicians).
Maryland also noted that aloe’s benefits extend to other ailments, as it aided sufferers of genital herpes and psoriasis with anti-inflammatory effects that bested hydrocortisone cream.
Grow your own aloe vera plants
Aloe vera may be called “easy vera,” as it is one of the most low-maintenance plants you’ll shepherd through your garden. Aloe vera plants require very little water and thrive best in direct sunlight.
This plant doesn’t ask for much. A simple potting mix with perlite, grit or sand will serve as a fine home. The Arizona Cooperative Extension notes that even cactus mix soil will work for the aloe vera plant.
Make sure the plant’s new “home” has a drainage hole and only water when the soil is dry. Also, while these plants don’t quite enjoy “chilling out,” you can easily move them in from the frost and back out when the sun begins to blaze again.
Aloe vera plants make a lush addition to your garden, even if you don’t plan to break off a leaf or two. When the plants mature, you’ll have uniform light green color with fronds that extend up to four feet in length.
Just be careful with the soft, but prickly, spines around the edges. Invest in your aloe plants and they’ll reward you with a stalk bearing cylindrical yellow flowers in a rosette shape.
If you do plan to use your aloe plant for healing purposes, don’t worry that breaking off a leaf will destroy the plant or cause necrosis to set in. Stem wounds and broken roots heal themselves (most successfully under shady conditions).
When you’re ready to buy your seedlings or cuttings, you’ll find them online through a variety of sellers, from massive mass merchandisers to specialty succulent shops. You can also venture out and buy from local nurseries, where you might even get advice on planting and supporting your new in-house first aid.
The biggest key to avoiding disappointment (i.e., discovering something you’ve planted is not what you planned on) is to do your research. Buy from trusted vendors, who have feedback and encouraging information on their websites. Pop into your nearby horticultural shop and ask who they buy from, or who they’d recommend. Then get growing!
Limitations and considerations when growing your own aloe vera plants
Holistic practitioners and DIY-ers alike may both strongly advise you try to take the home-grown route as much as possible, but even a strong contender such as aloe has its limitations.
Influential health affiliated organizations such as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey state that pregnant women should not take aloe vera in pill format. Women who are looking to conceive, or are unsure whether they are currently pregnant, should stay away too and find other ways to cool their burns.
The University of Colorado Denver also warns a larger group of people against the use of aloe vera in pill format—which can serve as a stimulant laxative—including people suffering from chronic constipation, inflammatory intestinal diseases and kidney disease.
UC Denver also echoes the University of Medicine and Dentistry’s warning against pregnant women taking aloe vera supplements, and also adds children under 10 years old to the warning list. UC Denver also warns that people allergic to garlic, tulips and onions may also find themselves allergic to aloe vera, which is considered to be in the same Lillaceae plant family.
Also, keep in mind that aloe’s positive health benefits only work for superficial burns. More intense burns from hot stove coils or boiling water, and chemically-induced blisters should be treated by medical professionals immediately.
In some cases, there’s just no plant-based option for treating something so severe, especially when delaying care could result in life-threatening infection, blood loss or improper healing. The University of Maryland also notes that while aloe has shown to reduce recovery time by up to nine days for some burns, it should never be applied to an open wound.