Chic, inexpensive, and relatively easy to keep alive, the Aloe vera plant’s popularity is understandable. At the very least, keeping Aloe in the house means you have a round-the-clock remedy for potential sunburn. But how much do we actually know about this trendy low-maintenance succulent? We turned to plant scientist Christopher Satch of The Sill to learn all about Aloe, from keeping the plant alive to figuring out how to reap its natural benefits.
Can you give us your best gardening tips for growing Aloe vera?
Aloe vera is super easy to grow if given the proper conditions. Native to Egypt, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula —Aloe vera like it sunny and dry. Keep your Aloe vera in a spot where it receives bright, direct to indirect light, and water it only when the soil is completely dry. Aloes are drought-tolerant —they can survive dry spells for weeks, even months!
During the growing season (never in the wintertime) fertilize once every 2-3 months with any houseplant fertilizer.
What’s worst thing you can do to your Aloe?
Do not overwater —it’s the easiest way to kill your Aloe! As of a run of thumb, it is better to underwater than overwater your Aloe. They will curl their leaves inwards when they want water. If they start to turn a muted purple-brown hue, that’s another sign they are in dire need of water. Don’t worry though —Aloes can amazingly recover to their normal green hue after they are soaked for a day.
To help with watering, pot your Aloe in well-draining potting soil inside a planter with drainage holes (or create your own drainage by adding lava rocks or something similar to the bottom of your planter).
What are the health and wellness benefits of Aloe?
Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years for its skin-healing properties. It is well-documented in the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian records, and is even referenced in the Egyptian Book of the Dead as part of the skin-preservation process during mummification.
Although there are many different types of Aloe —over 300 species— Aloe vera is the best variety for your skin, and the most widely known. This is in part due to the biology of the plant: The chemical compounds aloins and glycerols produced help prevent the Aloe from drying out. They do this by taking the place of water molecules in the plant —preserving the proteins and genetic material. These compounds are prominent in the gel sap in the leaves, which can be cut and squeezed fresh from the plant.
Additionally, ingesting Aloe was used as a laxative in ancient times. Although Aloe juice now exists as a beverage at most health food stores, the National Institute of Health does not recommend the consumption of raw Aloe. In fact, for the many beverages that contain Aloe gel, the Aloe extract must be processed first to remove toxic compounds —the same compounds responsible for the laxative action.
Some benefits of the sap include:
- Soothes minor skin burns and sunburns, irritation, bruising, etc.
- Reduces sting and itch of insect bites
- Produces natural antiseptics
- Brightens skin, reduces acne outbreaks, wrinkles, and skin rashes
- Removes makeup
- Conditions skin and hair
When is the best time to harvest the plant in order to make use of those benefits?
The best leaves to harvest are the older, lower leaves of the plant. This helps keep its growth sustainable and uniform, and the older leaves are usually the largest and juiciest.
Are there other uses for the plant that most people might not know of?
Aloe vera has the added benefit of being a plant that partakes in CAM photosynthesis, meaning that it releases oxygen at night and is therefore perfect for a bedroom! It also packs a punch with regards to taking volatile organic compounds from indoor air, absorbing them, and breaking them down. Some of these VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene, which we interact with on a daily basis. Plastic, rubber, paint, and vinyl all slowly emit these nasty compounds into the air as they decay. Indoor air quality can be more populated than outdoor air quality, so it never hurts to have plants like Aloe inside your home and office.
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