Aloe vera is the most commonly sold species of Aloe in U.S. garden centers.
© George Weigel
Aloe vera, or simply Aloe, has become a ubiquitous ingredient in countless products particularly for medicinal or cosmetic use. This fleshy African native plant is often nicknamed the “burn plant” because the leaves can be broken to release the sap — a thick, smooth liquid, which sooths mild burns. It is the most common of the Aloes in U.S. garden centers and makes an easy-to-grow houseplant. The burn plants' leaves are thick, upright, grayish green, and edged with teeth. In its native habitat, it may reach 2' to 3' tall, but 18" to 24" is typical if grown as a potted plant.
Why grow Aloe?
Besides being useful for burns, studies have shown Aloe vera sap to aid the healing of minor wounds and mild skin infections. The sap contains moisturizing properties that are much sought after in the production of cosmetic products, including lotions, makeup, shampoo and even tissues. Some research has shown Aloe-containing juices to ease heartburn, aid irritable bowel syndrome, and even improve blood sugar and blood-fat readings.
Think twice before consuming it, though. Its value in drinks is less well documented. If ingested, some studies find the juices to be of no value, or to be mildly irritating. Conflicting studies classify the sap as mildly toxic when ingested, possibly causing abdominal cramping and diarrhea.
Inside, grow Aloe vera next to a sunny window. Be picky with the potting mix. Gritty soils labeled for cactus and succulents works well. Like most succulent plants, the fastest way to kill Aloe vera is to overwater it. (It is found in the wild in arid areas). Water only when the soil surface has dried and the pot is noticeably lighter. Never let the plant sit in a saucer of water.
Fertilizer needs are low. Many gardeners grow Aloe vera successfully by giving it just one or two doses of cactus fertilizer per year during the spring and/or summer. Pest problems are uncommon, but occasionally mites, mealy bugs, scale, and aphids attack Aloes indoors. Soap sprays are often enough to stop early outbreaks. And, keep an eye on the dog, cat, or other curious pets if you’re growing Aloe vera indoors.
Aloe vera can be grown outside year round only in frost-free climates — Zones 9 – 11 in the United States. In northern climates, grow it as a houseplant and move it outside in summer. Do this task gradually over several days to acclimatize the plant. Provide partial shade or protect it from intense sun for a few days. Moving an indoor Aloe vera outside into full sun will bleach it and it will most likely turn to mush — the same result as when the plant is left outside in below-freezing temperatures.
Making more Aloe
Aloe vera is easy to propagate. Just watch for small offsets or “pups” to appear at ground level next to the mother plant. Remove these with a sharp knife and plant them individually in smaller pots. They will root in a few weeks.