I burned my hand the other day. Not so badly that I had to contemplate going to the doctor, but badly enough that I could think about very little else other than the wince-inducing pain. And then I remembered the small, succulent houseplant that I grow in a pot on the kitchen windowsill for exactly this reason.
Naturalised in parts of Africa, Latin America, India, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, Aloe vera is an evergreen shrubby perennia that forms a rosette of sharply toothed, pale green, fleshy leaves. Its various common names, for very good reasons, include the First Aid Plant, the Miracle Plant and Nature's Soothing Healer. For centuries, people have used the clear, odourless 'aloe gel' contained within its plump leaves to soothe minor cuts, grazes, insect bites, burns and other relatively minor skin disorders such as dermatitis.
Scientists have since discovered that within that viscous gel are substances known as glycoproteins and polysaccharides, which help to kill bacteria/fungi and reduce pain and inflammation, while also stimulating the skin’s healing process and boosting the body’s immune system.
On top of this, its remarkable moisturising properties mean that aloe gel is also a popular ingredient in many cosmetics, shampoos, skin creams, sunscreens, ointments and lotions, even some perfumes … for example, in the Clarins eau-de-toilette, Eau Dynamisante.
Some studies suggest that aloe gel can be used as a treatment for psoriasis, acne, herpes, even frostbite. Other research suggests that when taken internally, aloe gel/juice may help people suffering from adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some gastrointestinal disorders, although such use is not recommended without strict medical supervision.
In my case, I simple broke off a fleshy leaf and smeared the clear, sticky gel or leaf pulp, properly known as ‘leaf parenchyma tissue’, on the affected area. Then I split the leaf lengthwise and gently held it there. Within seconds the pain had eased dramatically, reminding me once again of the many amazing healing powers of plants.
So how do you grow it? Quite easily, is the answer. As befits a plant that is typically found growing in free-draining, rocky soils in some of the world’s warmest regions, Aloe vera requires an especially well-drained growing medium and a bright, frost-free spot. For Irish gardeners, that means that this sun-loving, drought-tolerant plant needs to be grown under cover during our cool, damp winters, but can be moved outdoors during the warmer summer months. The only exceptions to this rule are the country’s mildest, most protected, coastal gardens.
When growing it as an indoor/conservatory plant, add some good quality sharp horticultural grit or perlite to the compost to ensure sharp drainage and then place the pot in a draught-free, bright spot where the minimum temperature doesn’t go below five degrees Celsius. As for many indoor plants, always reduce watering to a minimum during the winter to prevent the roots from rotting. Come spring, you’ll need to start watering more regularly (but never so much that it’s sitting for any length of time in sodden compost) and give it an occasional liquid feed to boost growth. Always let the compost almost dry out in between watering.
I keep my plant indoors throughout the year, but as mentioned earlier, it can be moved outside during the summer months. Just make sure to give it a bright, sheltered spot, safely away from dripping roof eaves or gutters, or the dense shadows cast by large shrubs or trees.
Grown as a pot plant, Aloe vera typically reaches a height and spread of approximately 30cm, roughly a half to a third of what it reaches when grown in the wild. Mine has never bloomed but that's not to say that yours won't eventually produce a stout flower stem covered in yellow/orange tubular flowers in late winter/early spring.
Over time, baby plants or ‘offshoots’ will appear close to the base of the parent plant. These should be gently pulled away in summer, potted on and placed somewhere warm, out of direct sunshine, where they will soon root. Given the plant’s famed curative powers, you’ll always find a welcome home for such progeny.
The parent plant itself will also need occasional re-potting. Do this in summer also, taking care not to damage the fleshy roots. As for many indoor plants, its leaves can also get covered with a layer of dust over time. And so, every once in a while, I use a damp soft cloth to gently wipe mine down, taking care to avoid coming in contact with those sharp leaf spines.
Other than that, this remarkable plant seems impressively immune to attack by any pests and diseases, leading me to wonder whether its powerful curative properties extend to protecting it from such things. That wouldn't surprise me in the least. Aloe vera plants are available to buy from most good garden centres, including Johnstown Garden Centre (from €12, johnstowngardencentre.ie)