Friday, September 01, 2006

The Herbal Garden: Aloe Vera

Welcome to the first article in what I hope will be an informative & interesting series about gardening with herbs! Way back in the early 90's I became a student of herbal medicine and alternative healing...and suddenly found myself, the woman with the Black Thumb, digging in the yard with a pick axe so I could have my very own organic supply of herb plants. I planted a grand total of 12 herbs, sat back, and waited with baited breath for what I was sure would be their imminent demise. But, good lord, even with my gross negligence they not only grew, THEY THRIVED! So I dug some more, and planted some more, and dug some more, and planted some more...and before I knew what was happening, I was a GARDENER. Shortly thereafter, I started my own little business selling herbs and sharing my experiences and haven't looked back since. But enough about me...let's talk about ALOE VERA!

You've seen it before...odds are you have some growing in your kitchen. It's in your lotions and cosmetics. You hear it mentioned in nearly every commercial in conjunction with the words 'dry skin.' It is by far one of the easiest herbs to grow, and the hardest to it became the first one I tried indoors.

Aloe is known by many names; it's official 'scientific' name is Aloe barbadensis but it also goes by 'medicine plant' or 'first-aid plant'. It's originally from Eastern and Southern Africa but can be cultivated outdoors in any tropical location. Here in the Northeast, it will happily reside outside during the summer months but will die at the first frost if you leave it there. Poor things. There are more than 240 different species of Aloe (all of those having an extra word or two added on to the scientific name to denote said species), and though it LOOKS like a succulent it's really a member of the Lily family. Apparently, some species will flower and produce fruit containing the seeds; I have yet to view such an amazing event.

Aloe gel is most commonly used to treat burns and skin irritations...and yep, it works like a charm every time. From what I've read, the reason it DOES work is because it helps your fibroblast cells function...those are the fellas that make collagen, and also are responsible for soothing cuts, burns and bruises. This explains just WHY it's touted in all sorts of skin creams and cosmetics, eh? When the juice from the base of the leaf is collected and evaporated it is called Aloes; over the millenia, it has been used for a multitude of health applications that I'll let you discover on your own. Remember...NEVER use any type of herb without consulting a practitioner first! Most commonly it was used as a laxative, and is also found in those horrible-tasting anti nail biting remedies. Yeech. But effective!

Now that you're completely fascinated and are ready to rush out and buy your very own aloe...or hug the one you already are some handy care and feeding tips for you.

  • Aloe plants are available at any nursery, and probably at your local grocery store if they have that sort of section.
  • Aloe is VERY sensitive to even the slightest hint of frost because it is comprised of 95% water. So bring it in EARLY!
  • If you're lucky enough to live where you CAN grow one outdoors (and man am I jealous) plant your Aloe in full sun or light shade in soil that drains well.
  • If you're like me and stuck in a place where frost is a bitter reality (pun intended) put your Aloe in a nice terracotta pot and stick it near a window that gets lots of sun. Since it prefers good drainage, make sure you put some shards or pebbles at the bottom of your pot before planting and use a sandy mix soil.
  • During the summer season, water your Aloe when it becomes dry, soaking it completely.
  • Over the winter, Aloes scale back on growth and use much less water, so you'll only need to give it a cup or so when it is REALLY dry.
  • You can fertilize it yearly, but I've never bothered and have always had perfectly fine growth. If you aren't as lazy as I am, use the type of fertilizer geared for blooming plants.
If you have a friend that's on the fence about jumping into the gardening ring, or if they think they have the dreaded Black Thumb like yours truly, buy them an Aloe plant as a nice little inexpensive gift. It will thrive, they'll start to realize that they CAN keep a plant among the living...and you'll have them hooked on growing in no time. Also a great gift for wedding showers, housewarming parties and the like.

Until next time, HAPPY GARDENING!

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