Aloe vera

Aloe vera


Aloe vera

(L.) Burm.f. 1768

pronounced: AL-oh VER-uh

(Xanthorrhoeaceae — the grass tree family)

subfamily: Asphodeloideae


common names: Aloe vera

Aloe is from an Arabic word, alloeh, ‘shining bitter substance’; vera is from the Latin verus, true. Long before the skin-care companies latched on to it (mostly in the 1950s), the beautiful Queen Nefertiti in ancient Egypt was applying aloe vera gel to her skin.

Aloe vera is a species of succulent plant that probably originated in northern Africa. The species does not have any naturally occurring populations, although closely related aloes do occur in northern Africa. The plant has a long association with herbal medicine, although it is not known when its medical applications were first discovered. Early records of its use appear in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt in the 16th century BC, in both Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia from the mid 1st century AD, and in the Juliana Anicia Codex in 512 AD. The aloe mentioned in the New Testament (John 19: 39 - 40), used by Nicodemus in the anointing of Jesus’ body, may well have been Aloe vera.

It is a stemless or very short-stemmed succulent plant growing to 60 – 100 cm tall, spreading by offsets. The stems are thick and fleshy, green to grey-green, with some varieties showing white flecks on the stem surfaces.The upper leaf surface is flat or slightly dish-shaped, and the lower surface rounded, both surfaces smooth to the touch. The margin of the stem is serrate, with small spreading triangular-shaped white teeth, 2 - 4 mm long. Leaves on mature plants are a distinctive grey-green, due to the surface being covered with a greyish bloom. During summer the leaves are often greener, and during winter they can take on a bronze tinge.

The flowers are produced in summer on an upright spike up to 90 cm tall, that may have 2 or 3 terminal branches, and poker-like blossom heads 5 - 8 cm long, each flower pendulous, with a yellow tubular corolla 2 – 3 cm long. Pistil and stamens protrude beyond the head of the corolla tube.

The fruits are capsules, dehiscent at maturity to release the seeds, which are winged.

The gel of the aloe vera plant is well known as a soothing healer for conditions such as sunburn, minor burns, cuts, scratches and bruises. The consumption of aloe vera juice has been traditionally used for healing and soothing of digestive conditions such as heartburn.

Aloe vera has been widely grown as an ornamental plant. The species is popular with modern gardeners both as a medically useful plant and due to its interesting flowers, form and succulence. This succulence enables the species to survive in areas of low rainfall, making it ideal for use in rockeries and other low water use gardens. It is relatively resistant to most garden pests. Large-scale agricultural production of the plant is undertaken in Australia, the USA, the West Indies and South Africa, among other countries, to supply the cosmetics industry with aloe vera gel.

Scientific evidence for the cosmetic and therapeutic effectiveness of the plant is limited, and where present is typically contradictory. Despite this, the cosmetics and alternative medicines industries regularly make claims for its soothing, healing and moisturizing properties. Sap or other derivatives is added to products such as make-up, soap, shampoos, moisturizers and sunscreens. Aloe vera is non-toxic, with no known side-effects, provided that the substance aloin has been removed.

Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.

Photographed in Picnic Bay 2009, Nelly Bay 2016, Alma Bay 2016
Page last updated 8th December 2019