Most of us are fairly familiar with aloe vera, especially during sunburn season. But did you know there are more than 400 species of these winter bloomers?
What all aloes have in common are rosettes of water-storing leaves. Some aloes have spines, others are smooth.
Tall flower spikes that bloom in the winter range from white to yellow to orange with tinges of red — and make aloes striking in the landscape where you have room to let them spread.
Although aloes occur naturally in the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar, the mother lode comes from South Africa.
There, aloes are pollinated by sunbirds, a nonhovering bird that grips the upright stems to get at the nectar. Hummingbirds stand in as substitute pollinators here.
Many ancient cultures used and mentioned aloe in their writings. Aloe seemed to find its way from China to South America — not surprising, since Christopher Columbus used aloe vera to treat wounds.
There are two properties of aloe vera that have medicinal value. Aloe gel, found inside the fleshy leaves, works as a topical treatment by hydrating the skin and forming a protective barrier.
This gel is 99 percent water with loads of amino acids, lipids and sterols. In fact, the National Center for Biotechnology Information uses all the buzzwords we look for in pricey skin care products to describe its benefits: collagen-building, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, moisturizing and anti-aging.
Wow — skin care from a scraggly plant we can grow for free in our backyard.
The lesser-known aloe latex, found in the yellowish area of the inside leaf, can be used internally as a laxative and contains anthraquinones and glycosides.
Images of aloe vera are mislabeled all over the Internet. It appears that aloe-remedy companies use any old aloe image with pretty blooms to sell their concoctions.
A true aloe vera is a supersucculent plant with green speckled leaves. The flowers aren’t much to look at, unlike the host of ornamental aloes you’ll find for the landscape.
This is important because not all aloes are safe, and some are even poisonous. Aloe vera, in particular, is grown exclusively for its gel.
The key to growing aloe successfully is fast drainage and full sun, although all aloes will look better with a bit of afternoon shade. They can live on rainfall alone, but aloes look best with supplemental water. Twice a month is plenty.
Give them room. They can get enormous in some cases.