A note to readers: I apologize for the hiatus in writing this blog; the organic greenhouse/nursery I managed closed its doors and I embarked upon a new life adventure. I now work as a Collections Gardener at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California. There, I am helping to preserve, protect, and propagate rare and ubiquitous plant species from deserts of North America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar and Australia. I am involved in the conservation of plant and animal species facing extinction. I will continue to contribute to this blog about heirloom plants grown organically. Organic gardening is part of the best future for our planet; organic gardens actually directly capture carbon rather than indirectly and directly release carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. I urge you to do your part to capture carbon and minimize emissions. Together we can save Earth for future generations of all life forms!
ALOE VERA, AN HEIRLOOM PLANT EASY TO GROW ORGANICALLY
By James Sagmiller
Aloe vera is one of our oldest cultivated plants and was primarily grown for use as a medicinal plant. It is mentioned in the “Ebers Papyrus” dating to the 16th century B.C. in Egypt. It was well known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Alexander the Great’s time, about 330-360 B.C., a center of cultivation was the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and about 240 miles from the Arabian Peninsula. (Aloe vera is carefully illustrated, described, and its uses listed in a herbal written by Dioscorides about 78 A.D., De Materia Medica. It is known to us through a copy included in the Codex Anicinae Julianae of 512 A.D. Dioscorides recommends Aloe vera be used topically for coagulating blood, staunching wounds and for hemorrhoids. He suggests mixing it with wine and honey to use as a rinse for tonsils, gums and sores of the mouth. He says it may be ingested as a “purgative” (laxative). He states that the plant was grown in India, Arabia, Asia, Apulia (Italy), and Andros.
Our illustration above is from The Greate Herball of Gerard (1633 revised version) page 507. The plant on the left is Aloe vera, on the right is Agave americana, a plant often confused with various species of aloe. Gerard repeats the medical uses of Dioscorides, but adds that Aloe vera, when ingested will cure worms also. It is interesting that Gerard recommends hanging live aloe plants from the ceiling, mentioning it will stay alive for months. In cottages in England at that time the warmest area (and probably least prone to frost) in a house would have been near the ceiling.
Indeed, Aloe vera is a tender plant in northern climates. It is actually hardy to about 25 degrees F. when it is grown on well-drained, dryish soil. Plants are commercially grown today in the West Indies on islands such as Curacao and Barbados. The old, incorrect name Aloe barbadensis may derive from the assumption that the plant originated in the West Indies, but Aloe vera is thought to be native to the Arabian Peninsula or possibly North Africa.
Medical use of Aloe vera today is quite controversial, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD). Topical use is generally accepted as safe for use in cosmetics and for burns, sunburns, wounds and mouth rinses. Most of the controversy concerns ingestion of Aloe vera for various ailments, such as psoriasis, weight loss, constipation, HIV/AIDS, and Herpes simplex. Results of several studies are conflicting, so it is advised to ingest Aloe vera with caution and awareness of risks involved. Aloe vera as ingested is not recommended for lactating women, or within two weeks of surgery, and will react toxically with the drug Digoxin.
I personally have found the fresh, live juice to help heal sunburns and other burns quickly. The fresh gel acts as a moisturizing, protective layer on the skin. The fresh juice contains vitamins C and E plus various minerals. It may be that Aloe vera is most effective only when fresh and “alive” and may change chemically and in effectiveness when dried, pasteurized, or otherwise processed, much as is the case with fresh, as opposed to processed garlic.
Fortunately, Aloe vera is easy to grow! Plants produce prodigious stemless offsets which can be easily used to produce new plants. Take offsets and place them in a shady spot in a temperature of between 60 degrees F. and 90 degrees F. Let them dry off for two or three days, then prepare to pot them up. An organic cactus mix will work, but should not be too alkaline (high pH). If that is used, mix 2 parts cactus mix + 1 part organic potting soil + 1/3 part perlite + 1/16 part coffee grounds + 1/16 part bone meal and mix all together. To make your own organic mix, use 3 parts organic potting soil (or organic compost plus rotted bark or peat) + 1 part sharp grit (such as #2 chicken grit) + 1/16th part bone meal. A clay pot is really best, as the roots of Aloe vera need air. Try to think of a plant’s roots as its lungs. It needs a moist, airy environment to survive. A plastic pot may be used for an aloe plant, but place gravel or perlite in the bottom ⅛ of the pot for drainage. Make sure the pot has drainage holes for excess water to drain away. A mulch of rock chips or grit is excellent and attractive around an aloe plant, and serves to hold new offsets in place until well-rooted, but is not necessary. Room (or greenhouse) temperatures of 65 degrees F. to 90 degrees F. are preferred for this aloe. Aloes grow faster with more light and heat.
Plants can be grown in full sun as we do here outside in the low desert of California’s Coachella Valley, but Aloe vera is adaptable to light shade or part shade and fine plants may be grown in lower light conditions. Just be sure to take care not to over water your plants in shade or dark rooms. The best indoor plants I have seen were grown in east or southeast-facing windows.
Once a year, in mid-spring, top dress your potted plants with bone meal and a thin layer of fresh compost, or repot them one pot-size up.
It is great to have fresh Aloe vera on hand for burns and minor cuts, and the plants are quite beautiful with their blue-green foliage. In full sun, the foliage turns reddish. If lots of light is available, your Aloe vera will bloom with stalks of lovely yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds.