- Botanical name: Aloe barbadensis
- Height: 2 feet (0.6 m)
- Spread: 2 feet (0.6 m)
- Sun exposure: full sun or very bright indirect light
- Soil requirements: sandy, well-draining
- Hardiness zones: 8-11
- When to plant: winter in frost-free environments
People have been growing aloe vera plants (Aloe barbadensis) for literally thousands of years. It is one of the more recognizable and widely grown houseplants, and one of the most widely used medicinal plants on the planet.
This native of Africa is a succulent in the genus of the same name (Aloe), in which there are over 180 species. Aloe barbadensis is the botanical name for the recognizable aloe vera. The species most commonly used in beauty and medical products is Aloe barbadensis miller. The plant sports beautiful, thick leaves fashioned in a rosette form. While frequently seen as a houseplant, aloe vera may also be grown outdoors in warmer regions.
Where to Grow Aloe Vera
While aloe is generally grown as a houseplant, it can survive in some zones outdoors. Its native range is in the arid tropical regions of Africa. In more local terms, Aloe barbadensis is hardy to United States Department of Agriculture zones 8-11. As such, it has little tolerance to freezing conditions and must be grown indoors in cooler areas. Aloe is hardy to 26 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 C) for brief periods, but it will not survive a sustained freeze.
Aloe vera prefers a sunny location with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. The tough skin of the leaves is able to withstand even harsh solar rays without burning. If you’re growing your aloe indoors (and are in the Northern hemisphere), set it in a southern or western window so it receives plenty of sun. Container houseplants may be moved outdoors for the summer. In ground plants should be planted in well draining soil, in full sun.
Container grown plants are very adaptable to being crowded. If kept in a confined pot, the plant will stay small. If re-potted into larger containers, over the years it will grow to its maximum size. No matter where the aloe plant is grown, it will still need a full sun situation. While plants in partial shade won’t necessarily die, they won’t flourish, either. They will not produce flowers, the leaves will stretch and get limp, and the color will suffer. Shade situations can also cause excess moisture that could encourage root rot, which will kill the plant.
When to Plant Aloe Vera
Aloe plants, like most succulents and cacti, enter a dormant period in winter. This is the best time to re-pot them or install them outdoors in warm regions. Aloes will not do well in heavy soils. Soil should be freely draining and have a bit of grit to encourage the movement of water away from the base of the plant. Indoor plants will thrive in cactus soil or potting soil with extra perlite or sand added to the mix. Outdoor plants may require soil amendment with sand or other gritty material to enhance percolation.
Container grown plants will not achieve the height those planted in the ground will achieve. On average, aloe vera will produce 8-10 inch (20-25 cm) long, fleshy leaves edges with gentle serration. The leaves are green with some grayish mottling. Aloe leaves harbor moisture in the form of a gel, allowing the plant to survive in extreme dry conditions for a period of time.
Overall, the rosette can grow up to 2 feet (0.6 m) in height and about as wide. In certain conditions, the succulent will produce a flower spike of up to 3 feet (0.9 m) in height. Aloe blooms are showy and clustered on the stem in hues of coral-red to yellow, and dangle appealingly.
Care of Aloe Houseplants
Aloe vera watering requirements are few. The soil of the aloe vera plant should be allowed to go completely dry before being watered. When the aloe plant is watered, the soil should be thoroughly drenched, but the water should be allowed to drain freely from the soil. The most common cause of death in aloe houseplants is overwatering, either in the form of watering too frequently or not providing adequate drainage.
Aloes generally don’t need to be fertilized. If you really want to feed your aloe, do it once a year in the spring. You can use a phosphorus-heavy, water-based fertilizer at half strength.
Aloe vera propagation is very easy, as the plant will naturally produce pups, or small offshoots from the stem, that can be removed and grown as new plants. To remove a pup, simply cut it cleanly from the main plant with a sharp knife. Leave the pup in a spot with good air circulation for about a week to allow the wound to heal (this will help prevent disease and rot), then plant it in a new pot. It should begin to grow new roots in about a month.
Medicinal Use of Aloe Vera
Everyone has heard of aloe vera’s many uses. Aloe gel has been used for centuries to treat burns and cuts, and as part of numerous cosmetic preparations. It is frequently used to provide sunburn relief. Studies have shown promising data that acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions may be treated effectively with topical aloe vera gel. It is also prized for its antibacterial properties, and thought to be useful in wound healing.
However, oral use of aloe latex has been known to come with a host of side effects, including diarrhea and abdominal cramps. While it used to be used for its laxative effects, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned aloe latex from laxative products sold in the United States in 2002 due to the dangers.
Always consult with your doctor before taking supplements or adding any medicinal plants to your health routine.