Aloes are easily recognizable by their tall, woody stems and spiky flowers.
Hailed as an important natural drug throughout history, aloe vera can be used as an effective skin toner and anti-burn remedy.
There are three officially recognized varieties of aloe, a succulent, cactus-like plant belonging to the lily family. Recognizable by their long, pointed, fleshy leaves (usually prickly at the margin and tip), woody stems, and erect spikes of yellow, orange or red flowers, aloes can be grown conveniently as house plants and provide a handy remedy for a variety of ailments. The leaves of the plant are filled with a yellow juice which contains the bitter-tasting drug called aloes.
Aloe vera (also known as the Curacao or Barbados aloe) is native to the West Indies and, of the three varieties, it is most extensively used in modern medicine. Cape (native to South Africa) and Socotrine aloes are also grown but less widely used commercially.
Beneath the outer skin of the leaves is a layer of enlarged cells which contains the yellowish juice known as aloes. It is this juice which possesses the medicinal properties. For internal use, aloes is recognized as an emmenagogue (to promote suppressed menstruation). It is also known for its purgative properties and acts as a vermifuge (working against parasitic worms), destroying and expelling them from the gut. Cape aloes is the most potent purgative and vermifuge and is used for veterinary purposes.
Aloe vera acts externally as a soothing and healing gel, as well as a disinfectant and astringent. It helps to keep the skin healthy by stimulating the circulation and promoting the growth of new tissue. Minor cuts and burns, sunburn and insect bites can all be treated effectively with aloe vera. Some readers may remember having aloes rubbed onto their fingers to deter nail-biting by its strong, bitter taste.
In West Indies, aloe vera grows both wild and in plantations
Due to their preference for a hot climate, aloes must be kept indoors or in a heated greenhouse for best results. Growth is slow, and it is important not to over-water: do not forget, the aloe is a desert plant. Brown spots can appear on the leaves as a result of watering with tap-water containing fluoride, so use, if possible, rain-water or spring water. The leaves may also develop blemishes from bruising or direct sunlight (although the plant likes plenty of light).
Side shoots appear when the aloe needs re-potting; these should be removed and potted separately before replanting the parent aloe in a larger pot, otherwise they will sap the vitality of the parent plant. When potting, use a well-watered, sandy compost, and then do not water again for a while; this will encourage strong root growth.
Using aloe leaves
Older plants are medicinally more effective, and yield larger leaves for use on skin afflictions, than younger ones. Two to three years' growth should be allowed before harvesting the juice, but young plants will have some curative properties.
When collecting the juice, cut the leaves off close to the stem (the aloe will then seal off the cut). Choose a leaf from the base, as these are the oldest and have the highest medicinal value; this method is also the least disfiguring to the plant. The leaf can then either be arranged so that the juice drains into a cup, or sliced lengthways and the cut surface applied directly to the skin.
In West Indian aloe plantations, the aloes are grown in rows and the juice is collected in March or April; in Africa, the juice is collected from wild plants by arranging the cut leaves round a hole, dug in the ground, in which is spread an animal skin – inner side uppermost – to collect the resin
HISTORY AND LEGENDS
The power of aloes was known to the Greeks as early as the fourth century BC. A legend tells how the great Aristotle requested that his pupil, Alexander the Great, conquer the aloes-producing islands of Socotra. In the tenth century, the herb was being imported into Europe via the Red Sea and Alexandria, but Moslem travelers reported that Socotra was still the only place cultivating aloes. East India company records from the early 1600s show that aloes were being imported into Britain and by 1693 were being sold by London druggists.
The Moslems and the Jews of Cairo hang aloes in their doorways to protect the household from evil.
ALOE VERA – EXTERNAL REMEDIES
Cuts, Scratches and Bruises
Apply fresh aloe juice to reduce swelling and speed healing.
Apply juice daily. Skin may become dry, but only initially.
Aloe juice mixed with almond oil has been found to have a beneficial effect.
Apply the cut surface of a leaf to scalds, fat burns, and acid burns. Pain is eased, healing is rapid and scarring is reduced. The gel seals the burn, thus preventing the entry of secondary infections. The same leaf can be used for several applications by scratching the cut surface each time to produce more gel.
Damaged Hair and Dandruff
Apply aloe juice to scalp and hair and leave overnight (if possible). It protects against the removal of natural oils from the hair and counteracts the detergent effects of shampoos.
Dry or Dull Skin
Use aloe cream at night, or as a morning moisturizer under make-up. Aloe is also available as a combined moisturizer and sun screen. Alternatively, fresh juice can be applied as a face pack for 15-20 minutes, and then washed off; this makes a marvelous skin tonic.
- If used as a purgative, aloes should be combined with herbs such as fennel, or ginger or caraway, as these are carminative (acting to stimulate and soothe digestion) and prevent gripping pains in the abdomen – a possibility when aloes is used alone.
- Aloes act as an emmenagogue by stimulating the uterus, and it may cause contractions. It should, therefore, be avoided during pregnancy.
- Aloes should be avoided by nursing mothers. This is because the active ingredients will pass through into the breast milk and may also purge the infant.
Herbalists would not recommend you to experiment with aloes as an internal remedy because it has a potent action and dosage requires careful monitoring. Purging is not a fashionable practice these days, and the use of aloes as an internal remedy has greatly declined.