The healing, medicinal, and therapeutic properties of aloe vera have been well understood by humans for millennia. It’s no surprise that this miracle succulent has earned the moniker “Empress of Healing Plants”. Its striking architectural leaves make for a stunning display, whilst its precious gel offers hundreds of practical benefits, perfectly merging botanical beauty with everyday functionality.
They are possibly the most versatile and practical plants we can grow in our homes and gardens. Learn more about how you can grow your own aloe vera and take advantage of its many miracle properties with our ultimate guide to growing, caring for, and using aloe vera!
What is Aloe vera?
Aloe Vera is a species of evergreen, succulent, perennial plant belonging to the Aloe genus, which contains a further 500 similar species. Today, aloe vera grows abundantly in warm tropical, subtropical, and arid desert environments, but it cannot survive the colder winter temperatures of most northern climates.
There is some debate over the true origins of the aloe vera species since it has become naturalised across Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East over many thousands of years. Researchers’ best estimate is that aloe vera originated somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula and possibly North Africa around 10 million years ago.
Like most succulents, aloe vera plants’ anatomy is designed to survive very dry conditions, with thick, fleshy, spiked leaves that can store plenty of moisture. The leaves protrude upwards in a rosette shape from a central stem which is low to the ground.
The leaves vary in colour from intense greens to dull greys and can reach up to a meter in length. Each leaf has a serrated border which is reminiscent of tiny white teeth to protect the plant from predators. Lining the inside of the leaf is a thin layer of yellow-colored latex which protects a thick, translucent gel-like substance within.
This gel, which is 90% water, contains 75 active ingredients that give the aloe vera plant its esteemed medicinal and healing properties.
Traditional uses of Aloe Vera
Humans have known about the beneficial properties of aloe vera and incorporated it as an ingredient in beauty products, healing rituals, and traditional medicines for millennia. The oldest documented uses of aloe vera date back to around 2000 BCE, whilst even earlier depictions of the aloe vera plant have been found in six thousand years old Egyptian caves and tombs.
The healing properties of the aloe vera plant are mentioned numerous times in the Christian bible. Christ’s body is said to have been embalmed in aloe vera and myrrh after the crucifixion.
Aloe vera has featured prolifically in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, used to treat a range of internal and external health problems, including clearing the heart, cooling the liver, and soothing the skin.
The ancient Egyptians considered aloe vera to be the ‘plant of immortality’ because of its health benefits, coupled with its ability to flourish even in the harshest of conditions. Many pharaohs were buried with an aloe plant inside their tombs. Egyptian queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti famously used aloe vera in their daily beauty regimes.
The ancient Greeks believed aloe vera to be a panacea, a universal cure for all ailments and ills. Alexander the Great used aloe vera to treat his wounded soldiers.
During World War Two, aloe vera gel was used to treat radiation burns caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs.
How can I use my aloe vera?
Aloe vera has long been known as the “Empress of healing plants”, and for good reason. Its skin, latex, and gel all possess an abundance of proven and versatile therapeutic and restorative properties. To help inspire you to use your own aloe, here just ten of the many amazing ways that we can utilise this miracle plant;
- Soothing burns and irritations – Aloe vera gel has long been endorsed as an effective relief for irritated skin, bug bites, minor burns, and sunburns because of its soothing, cooling, and anti-inflammatory properties. For extra relief, keep your aloe vera in the fridge!
- Anti-aging – Aloe vera contains molecules called sterols which help to promote the natural production of collagen in the skin. Collagen increases both skin elasticity and hydration, which both help to fight signs of wrinkles and keep our skin looking and feeling younger and more supple.
- Wound healing – Another way to use those collagen-boosting sterols is by applying aloe vera gel to wounds. By promoting collagen production, broken and damaged skin can repair itself faster. Aloe also stimulates keratin cell proliferation, which is essential for strong and healthy skin.
- Moisturising skin – The gel inside aloe leaves is made up of 99 percent water, meaning it is a fantastic moisturiser. It also contains hyaluronic acid and vitamin E which are well known for their hydrating properties, as well as vitamin A which is a natural antioxidant, and vitamin C which helps to brighten the skin, leaving it looking healthier, softer, and smoother.
- Acne treatment – Aloe vera contains antifungal and antibacterial compounds, as well as salicylic acid, a natural exfoliating substance, all of which are proven to help keep acne at bay. Its anti-inflammatory properties help to reduce the appearance of acne, whilst the astringent properties of aloe vera will help to tackle excess oils on the skin which contribute to acne. Even better, the moisturising properties of aloe will help to reduce any older acne scarring.
- Shaving cream – The slippery, lubricating qualities of aloe vera gel are a great natural alternative to shaving foam, with the added benefits of deeply moisturising your skin as you shave, whilst its anti-inflammatory properties help to protect against irritating shaving rash. You could even add a few drops of coconut or olive oil for a super silky finish!
- Hair care – It’s not just skin that benefits from aloe vera, your hair will thank you for regular aloe treatments too! The high vitamin content in aloe vera will nourish, strengthen, and hydrate your hair, as well as gently cleanse your scalp with its mild astringent qualities. Apply the gel as a mask and rinse your hair thoroughly afterward. It also makes an excellent organic frizz tamer or styling gel, especially for naturally curly, kinky, or unruly hair.
- Oral hygiene – Aloe vera gel is an effective alternative to generic toothpaste. The antibacterial and anti-fungal qualities will keep your teeth and gums clean and healthy. The gel also contains Beta-sitosterol which calms the stomach acids that contribute to bad breath.
- Lower Blood Sugar – Studies have shown that aloe vera gel can help to lower blood sugars because it increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin and promotes glucose absorption when consumed either in pill form or as an additive or extract.
- Antioxidant – Adding some fresh aloe vera gel to a smoothie is an excellent way to help your body detox. The gel is packed full of antioxidant vitamins which fight against potentially harmful free radicals.
How to grow Aloe Vera indoors
Aloe vera makes a great houseplant! Kept within easy reach you can quickly harvest its miracle leaves, whilst also reaping the benefits of their air purifying qualities, AND enjoying their striking, structural aesthetic. Every home surely needs an aloe plant, and here’s how to grow them indoors.
Aloe veras need a very loose and well-draining potting mix that will prevent their roots from becoming waterlogged. A pre-mixed cacti or succulent potting mix will work well, or you can make your own by combining one part compost with one part drainage material like perlite or vermiculite. You could also line the bottom of the pot with additional drainage material such as clay pebbles before adding any substrate. Aloe vera is perfectly happy in poor soil, so you won’t need to add any extra organic matter.
Potting and Repotting
Aloe veras need a pot with plenty of drainage holes since they will quickly die when left standing in waterlogged soil. Terracotta pots are ideal because they are porous, allowing for plenty of airflow through the soil. Choose a pot that is around an inch bigger in diameter than the root ball.
Aloe veras are very slow growing, so shouldn’t require regular repotting unless they become root-bound, their growth becomes stunted, or they begin to get too top-heavy for their current pot, causing them to become unsteady. An easy way to check if your aloe has become root bound is to lift the pot so you can see the drainage hole beneath. If the roots are protruding from the hole, your aloe needs a new pot.
The best time to repot is spring or early summer when the plant is actively growing. Select a pot a few inches bigger in diameter than the old pot. Carefully remove the aloe from its old pot and dust off any soil from the roots. It’s a good idea to refresh the soil completely when repotting to give your aloe a boost, as soil loses nutrients and structure over time. Once transplanted to its new home and packed with soil, avoid watering your aloe for at least a week to give it time to recover and begin sending out new roots.
Indoors, aloe vera needs a position with plenty of bright but indirect sunlight such as an east-facing windowsill. Too much direct sun will scorch their leaves, causing them to turn brown and dry up, wasting all of the beneficial vitamins and minerals stored within them. Too little light can cause their leaves to become spindly and thin.
Their flat, broad leaves collect dust easily, so you should wipe them over regularly to stop dust building up and preventing your aloe from photosynthesising effectively.
Because they are succulents, aloe veras require minimal watering, making them a great low-maintenance plant for novices or those of us who have little time on our hands to tend to overdramatic houseplants. They can easily withstand short periods of drought if you forget to water them because their thick leaves retain so much moisture.
They should be watered thoroughly but infrequently. Give the pot chance to drain fully after each watering, and allow the soil to dry out fully before watering again. During summer, you will probably need to water your aloe once every two to three weeks, but this can be drastically reduced during winter when it isn’t actively growing.
If the leaves start to become wrinkled, dry or shrivelled it’s a sign that your aloe vera is thirsty, so increase your watering schedule slightly until the leaves become plump again. Soft, mushy leaves indicate an overwatered aloe. They can quickly fall victim to root rot if overwatered, and this is often fatal.
Aloe veras grow slowly, and they are used to very nutrient-poor soil in their natural habitats, so they don’t require much food at all. During spring and summer, you should feed your aloe monthly at most, but it will be perfectly happy with even less regular feeds. Use a balanced houseplant fertiliser diluted to half the recommended strength.
Temperature and Humidity
The ideal temperature for aloe vera is between 13 and 27°C, so they are perfectly suited to the average ambient temperature in our homes. If you want to give your indoor aloe a boost, you can move it outside during summer when temperatures are higher but don’t forget to bring it back inside if the temperature drops in the evening, and permanently at the end of the summer months. Aloes are sensitive to cold or fluctuating temperatures, so keep them away from cold drafts or hot radiators.
You shouldn’t need to make any humidity adjustments for your aloe, since they prefer humidity levels of 40 percent and below, which is fairly average in the home. Avoid growing your aloe in a bathroom where the humidity will be considerably higher as this can lead to rot.
The best time to propagate your aloe is when you come to repot it. Aloe vera plants produce little juvenile plants or offsets called ‘pups’ that will emerge from the soil next to the mother plant. After you have removed the mother from its old pot and shaken off the soil, you will be able to locate the pups’ root systems. Carefully remove the pup, with its roots and leaves intact, from the main root ball with clean pruning shears. Make sure you take plenty of healthy roots and a good amount of stem.
Once removed from the mother plant, allow your pup to rest, somewhere warm and with indirect light, on some paper towels for around a week. This gives the incision time to callous over. Which will protect the pup from rot once you begin to water it later on. Once the callous has formed, you can place the pup in its own pot and fill it will a loose, well-draining potting mix, and position it somewhere with plenty of bright, indirect light. Wait a week before watering, and then water only very lightly but regularly until the pup starts to produce new leaves, after which you can resume a normal watering routine.
How to grow Aloe Vera Outdoors
If you’re lucky enough to live in a hot climate, you may be able to grow your aloe plant outdoors. Aloe veras aren’t frost or even cold hardy, so they won’t usually survive growing outdoors in northern climates. Caring for aloe vera outdoors is essentially the same as caring for it indoors, except you will be rewarded with an added bonus that can’t be achieved indoors; outdoor aloes will flower!
Outdoor-grown aloe needs light, well-draining soil, but it doesn’t need to be particularly fertile. Sand, gravel, and even rockeries are good substrates for aloe vera. Avoid planting in areas with heavy soil, or in places that are prone to becoming waterlogged. A slightly alkaline pH level is preferable, but not necessary.
Choose a spot that receives at least six hours of sunlight per day during the summer. In very hot areas or high altitudes, you may want to select a slightly more sheltered spot to avoid the intense sun scorching the leaves during the height of summer. Give your aloe plant plenty of space, at least two to three feet distance between other plants, as their leaves like to stretch out radially as they mature.
Outdoors aloe will need light, weekly waterings when first planted. As they settle into their new position and begin to produce new leaves you can drastically reduce the regularity of waterings. A thorough soaking every three weeks during summer, reduced to every six or so weeks during winter should be fine. You won’t need to water it at all during rainy periods.
Temperature and Humidity
In nature, aloe veras grow in climates with temperatures consistently above 21°C, so you should only attempt to grow your aloe outside if your local climate replicates this. Aloe veras like dry conditions, and will struggle in humidity over 40 percent.
Aloe veras grown outdoors are likely to flower during springtime, provided conditions are right. Aloe vera won’t produce blooms until they are mature, so you will need to be patient. They require plenty of light to develop flowers and will need consistent temperatures of between 21°C and 30°C. You can encourage blooms by adding a small amount of balanced fertiliser to your usual watering regime throughout spring and summer. Avoid using a high-phosphorus food as this can damage the aloe.
How to harvest and store your fresh aloe vera
Harvesting your aloe gel is fairly simple. For the most effective results, wait until your plant is a few years old, as the beneficial nutrient concentration will be higher. Aloes grow very slowly, and once you have removed a leaf, it will never grow back, so wait until your aloe plan has at least ten leaves before your start harvesting. Instead, a callous will develop at the site of the incision to help the leaf retain moisture, but the callous can be unsightly, so make sure you remove the leaf right at the base. Wait a few weeks between harvests to allow the aloe plant time to recover.
Select a few healthy leaves and cut them off close to the base of the stem with sterile scissors. You might want to remove the serrated edges from the leaves too, as they can be sharp. The leaves can be wrapped in plastic or foil and stored in the fridge until you need to use them. Your aloe will stay fresh for up to a month, and you can simply cut off sections as needed. You can store your aloe vera for even longer in the freezer.
To collect the gel from inside the leaves, use a clean, sharp knife to remove the green skin and pale yellow latex. Wash the remaining gel thoroughly under cool water to remove any remnants of latex. The gel can be chopped up into smaller pieces, or even blended to create a smooth aloe gel or added to smoothies to drink.
How long do aloe vera plants live?
Indoor aloe veras can live for an average of around twelve years with the correct care. Outdoor aloe veras can have an even longer lifespan of up to 25 years!
Do aloe vera plants flower?
Aloe vera grown indoors are incredibly unlikely to flower, but outdoors aloe veras often produce blooms once they are fully matured. With the correct care, an outdoor aloe vera will develop tall, spiked inflorescences of reds, oranges, and yellows.
With so many healing and therapeutic qualities, and such low maintenance care requirements, there’s really no reason not to have a go at growing your own aloe vera. How many creative, diverse, and beneficial ways will you find to incorporate aloe into your daily routine?