Grower's Tips and Uses for Aloe Vera Plants

Aloe vera plant in closeup.

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Aloe vera plants are famous for producing a gel contained in many lotions meant to heal our skin or keep it feeling smooth. But they are good for more than the medicinal benefits that we get from their gel. They have another beneficial impact on our health: They improve air quality.

And while this species is not a type of cactus, its appearance is very cactus-like, so it fits nicely into a Southwestern design, whether indoors as a houseplant, to brighten up an office cubicle, or outdoors in patio pots.

Botanical Facts

Plant taxonomy classifies aloe vera plant as Aloe barbadensis. The plant grows as a perennial in tropical and sub-tropical regions, where the leaves of these clump-forming succulents are evergreen. Typically found in the wild in hot, dry climates, they are a natural for desert landscaping.

Features

While capable of achieving a height of 3 feet, aloe vera plants more typically mature to be 1 or 2 feet tall. If you grow these tropical plants indoors in containers, they most likely will remain on the shorter end of the height spectrum. When grown outdoors in warm climates, mature plants will produce yellow or orange flower heads on tall stalks.

The sword-shaped, often grayish-green leaves grow in rosettes and are sometimes studded with white flecks. Short teeth run up the edges of the leaves.

Planting Zones, Sun, and Soil Needs

Grow these succulents in planting zones 9, 10, or 11. They are thought to be indigenous to Africa. Locate them in full sun to partial shade and in well-drained soil. These succulents are drought-resistant plants once established.

Care

The key to growing these cactus-like plants is providing good drainage. When using aloe vera as a landscape plant, incorporate sand into the soil. For potting, be sure to place crushed stone at the bottom of the container, which should, of course, have a drainage hole in its bottom.

Aloe vera plant is relatively ​dormant in winter, meaning it will need very little water at that time. Even during the summer, be careful not to over-water established specimens. If the leaves show signs of browning, consider cutting back on sun exposure.

Along with English ivy (Hedera helix), aloe vera is thought to be one of the best plants for improving air quality in the home or office. As houseplants, provide them with bright light. But if you notice any browning on the leaves, move them to a spot with less direct light. Grow the plant in a well-drained loam.

Check the soil regularly; once it has completely dried out, water your aloe vera again, aiming for an evenly moist soil. This succulent does not need much fertilizing, nor is it bothered by many pests; an annual application of whatever fertilizer you use for your other houseplants is fine.

Uses

Aloe vera plants can be used in a variety of ways.

Medicinal Uses

Aloe vera is famous for its soothing medicinal properties, although some people are actually allergic to it. Many people keep a pot of it around in the house for use as "living first aid." When they burn a finger, they will break off a lower leaf and rub the juice on the burn. Removing the leaf does no damage to the plant. This medicinal wonder's motto is, "Doctor, heal thyself": The wound where the leaf was removed heals quickly.

Design Uses

As a potted plant, it may be treated as a houseplant to be used in interiorscaping or installed on patios, decks, etc. In the landscape (in zones 9, 10, and 11), its need for good drainage makes it an excellent candidate for rock gardens. These drought-tolerant succulents are also a natural for xeriscape design.

Propagation is easy because the plants produce babies (offsets that are commonly called "pups"). Just break off the pups, allow them to make contact with the ground (sand is a preferred rooting medium), and watch them root!

Meaning of the Name

There are many types of "aloe" in the world, a genus name of uncertain origin. Aloe vera plant is just one type, although it is, to be sure, the best known of the aloes. Perhaps that's why Linnaeus referred to this aloe as ​vera (Latin for "true").

The term stuck as part of the common name, but for the scientific name, many now prefer the designation of Philip Miller, a Scottish botanist: Aloe barbadensis. Miller's species name, barbadensis means "of Barbados." That is a rather misleading name since most experts do not believe the plants to be native to Barbados (asserting, instead, that they were brought there by the Spaniards).