Aloe Vera

Every windowsill deserves one

| February/March 1995

If any one plant can be called America’s folk remedy, it’s aloe vera. An aloe plant on the windowsill is nearly as common as salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table, and it’s a rare American household where a burn hasn’t been treated at least once with the cooling gel from a fresh aloe leaf. If you spend a lot of time working crossword puzzles or playing scrabble, you probably encounter the word often: few others consist of seventy-five percent vowels.

For countless Americans, myself included, aloe vera has been the first encounter with a medicinal herb. As teenagers in coastal Maine, my friends and I would head for the beach on a warm, early spring day to start renewing our suntans, and after frying our pallid winter skin, we’d rub aloe gel on each other’s blistered backs.

Aloes are perennial succulents primarily native to Africa. Of more than 360 Aloe species, 130 are South African natives, but most species have been introduced in other parts of the world. Despite their superficial resemblance to cactus, aloes are actually members of the lily family. The most familiar species, A. vera, is unusual among plants in that its complete botanical name is also its common name. Because of its common use in treating burns and wounds, it’s is also called burn plant, first-aid plant, and medicine plant. The Mexican century plant, though sometimes called American aloe, is an Agave, not an Aloe species. The name aloe comes from the Greek name for the plant, which in turn was inherited from one of its ancient Arabic names, alloeh. Vera is Latin for “true”.

The original name given to the plant by the botanist Linnaeus was A. perfoliata, which he later amended to A. p. var. vera. In the mid-1700s, taxonomist Philip Miller named it A. barbadensis, probably referring to its proliferation in Barbados. A few years earlier, N. L. Burman had independently given it the now-familiar name A. vera. Burman’s publication apparently went unnoticed at first, and in the early 1800s, Webb and Berthelot also published the name A. vera. Because the earliest known publication of a valid botanical name has priority over subsequently published names, taxonomists eventually reverted to Miller’s A. barbadensis. That name appeared in Hortus Third (Macmillan, 1976), which quickly became a popular taxonomic reference among horticulturists. Since its publication, however, Burman’s original work has resurfaced, and aloe vera is once again Aloe vera.

Growing Aloe Vera

Unless your predilection for aloe requires large quantities of the gel, your best bet is to use that aloe plant on the windowsill. Happily, aloe is one of those plants that’s easy to grow because it practically thrives on neglect. (It’s been said that if you can’t keep an aloe plant alive, you may as well buy plastic plants.) However, as a tropical or subtropical native, aloe vera can’t tolerate temperatures below about 40°F: if your potted aloe happens to be outside when the first fall frost hits, it’ll soon be nothing more than a blackened, oozing mass of dead tissue.

My plants do well in a bright window out of direct, burning sunlight. The soil should be well-drained and porous—a coarse, sandy potting soil that’s not too rich seems to suit aloe best. Overwatering and poor drainage are the greatest threats to this plant

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