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Beyond the Backyard Aloe: An Excellent Choice by Jenny Wildman

in Issue 38 by

Aloe vera has been revered as a healing plant for centuries and graces gardens throughout the world. The Maya called it the fountain of youth. Others know it as the immortality plant, savila, kumari, first aid plant, Barbados aloe, crocodile tail, lily of the desert, xabila, simple Bible, single Bible and here in Creole sink am Bible, names showing confidence in its power to cure most ailments. There are hundreds of species of aloe but only one proudly carrying the name “true” ie: aloe vera or Aloe barbadensis which is thought closely related to the Aloe perryl endemic to Yemen.

Aloe vera originated in northern Africa and is depicted on murals in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs, where it was hailed as a true miracle plant. Early alchemists and health practitioners recorded its amazing capabilities and these have been passed down for centuries. The best legends imply fact though unsubstantiated, contain the element of the supernatural or magic and are often accepted as history. Yet “if it da no so, da nearly so.”

There are 6 references to use of aloe in the Bible, the most notable John 19. 38-40, referring to the retrieval of the body of Jesus following the crucifixion. There are many versions of the Bible but consistent in saying that Nicodemus comes to the tomb carrying linens and hundred Roman pounds (75 by today’s conversion) of myrrh, aloes and cinnamon to embalm the body for burial as was the Jewish custom. Psalm 45.8 “All your robes are fragrant with myrrh, aloes and cassia” In fact all references allude to fine aroma which our cactus like aloe vera most certainly does not possess. This refers to Aquilaria malaccensis, aloeswood or agarwood, a very large tree whose light wood was prized for its heartwood, which, when infected with a mold, produces a dark aromatic juice used as a perfume, fragrant spice and essential oil for embalming. This was the prized aloe that early traders sought thus causing over-harvesting and near extinction. It is said that Alexander the Great was dangerously wounded in battle by an arrow. His miraculous recovery was attributed to aloe obtained from the Isle of Socotra, Yemen in the Indian Ocean. It was said to have made him invincible. Both Cleopatra and Nefertiti used the aloe gel in their daily beauty regimes. In Egypt, aloe vera was used to embalm and its ability to inhibit bacteria and fungus gave it the reputation of being able to bestow eternal life. The Jewish sect, the Essenes, who consumed it as a superfood, are reported to have commonly lived to 125 years of age.

Whether by accidental misinformation or by its links to celebrities like Nero, Cleopatra, Dioscorides, Aristotle, Columbus and Marco Polo or by its own diverse achievements, aloe vera has been acclaimed for over 5000 years, most certainly achieving immortality. Sickness was first thought to be the product of evil demons and still superstition abounds and aloe is thought to protect against bad spirits. It can be seen at the doorway of many Mexican households to ward off evil and bring good luck. It is given as a gift to newlyweds to protect their relationship, household accidents and fire. With the belief that there is life after death they also plant aloe on graves of loved ones to promote safety whist awaiting rebirth and ensuring a peaceful transition.

Whilst we see that the diverse beneficial powers of aloe have been known and used in many rituals for centuries, the extent of its use began with increased research. Following the radiation exposure caused by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese scientists found that those who consumed aloe and applied its gel to their skin recovered much sooner. This led to the discovery of the powerful antioxidants that aloe contains. Aloe is known to most for its benefit to skin as a moisturizer and particularly for soothing of sunburn. Today more that 250,000 gallons of gel per year are used in cosmetics alone. Yet its uses stretch far beyond skin care. Here is a short list of the ailments it purportedly treats when taken internally: constipation, stomach upsets, fungal issues, hemorrhoids, and diabetes; it is anti-bacterial and antimicrobial; it reduces inflammation, assists with weight loss, dispels parasites, improves blood circulation, cures mouth ulcers and it is also an ingredient used in commercial yoghurt, desserts, bitters and beverages.
Topically it is used on bug bites, itches, rashes, as an ingredient in soaps, hand sanitizers, body gels, make up removers, for arthritis relief, and as an exfoliate and emolument. These you can make yourself. Fresh is always more potent.

Raw gel is easy to harvest. Select healthy thick leaves from the lower part of the plant. Working from the base remove the side thorns from the leaf and then open, filleting the skin from the top and bottom of the leaf. Gently remove the transparent gel, discard the skin and yellow sap. This can be used as medicine but contains aloe in which is an irritant and is extremely bitter. Although allergies are seldom, some people who are allergic to latex may also be allergic to aloe. Do not use if you experience a tingling sensation on contact with the plant. As aloe is now an ingredient in so many products such as toilet paper, band aids, chapstick and diapers this could be good advice.

The gel can be made into ice cubes to use topically. For consumption to obtain vitamins A, B, C and E, many important minerals, antioxidants, sterols and polysaccharides it is best fresh not refrigerated and can be juiced or added to smoothies, salsas, dips and soups. A luxurious spa in the Yucatan touts its importance and includes aloe in their massage, beauty therapy and fabulous hydrating drinks. I surely always want to have it in my garden readily available for my guests.

Aloe is slow growing but easy; yet there are some pointers to remember. It grows best in indirect sunlight in well-drained sandy alkaline soil. Do not over water and allow it to completely dry before re-watering. If you do not live near the sea, occasionally give it a saline drink. It can be grown in pots, preferably clay, as they are porous and afford good drainage. Remember to remove the new pups to avoid overcrowding. Never over-harvest, always leave three or four healthy leaves and the plant will survive for many years growing to as much as one metre in height. Generally the plants are pest-free but keep an eye out for bugs and changes in the plant colour indicating a problem.

You may read that there is no scientific proof for some of these claims of healing but its reputation has endured since the beginning of time. The story perhaps begins with the romantic legend that tells of the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The angel Gabriel, feeling sorry for the pair, granted them the right to take just one thing. They chose aloe, which has since been called the shoot of paradise and as it is the plant of immortality, the story is never ending.

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