Aloe vera is a hearty succulent long known for its ability to soothe a sunburn. This storied herbaceous plant originates from the Arabian Peninsula, but due to its ability to survive dry climates, flourishes in regions such as North Africa, Sudan, and the Canary Islands.
Today, the white-flecked leaves of the aloe vera have become a regular fixture in almost any nursery or garden centre. It’s widely available but Christina McKenna, an employee at Lakeland Plant World in Dartmouth, N.S., recommends buying from a store that specializes in plants rather than a big box store.
“Their health is so important,” she says.
“I wouldn’t direct people to buy this plant just anywhere. Aloe vera can easily attract mites, something we pay very close attention to in our locations.”
Consistency is key for these plants known for enduring lengthy periods without much water and light. “You give it more water than a cactus but not as much as a regular plant,” McKenna says. “I give it a good watering every two weeks and then let it dry down, kind of like how it exists naturally in the desert. When thinking of light, you wouldn’t want the plant to go from a really sunny spot to a really dark spot in your house too often.”
Amanda Foy, works at Scott’s Nursery in Lincoln, N.B. She says aloe vera holds such a great deal of moisture within its leaves that it depends on minimal water from the soil. The plant’s innermost layers are 99% water.
“Overwatering is the most common problem we see,” she says. “It causes the roots to rot and, in turn, the rest of the plant. As for light, I would say put the plant in the brightest, sunniest spot in the house.”
While harvesting aloe vera leaves is common practice, work carefully when you do to protect your plant’s health. “Only cut off what you want to use immediately,” says Foy. “Cut a couple inches from one of the leaves rather than detaching from the stem. When you cut from the stem, it will not regrow.”
Ensure leaves are healthy and free of mold. Wash and dry the cut leaves, and trim the pointy edges with a knife. Using a knife, remove the green skin from the interior gel and discard the skin. Save the sap (aloe vera latex) and gel.
When storing the sap or gel for future use, Foy and McKenna agree that the freezer is your best bet. “I put the leaves in the freezer in a plastic bag or wrapped in cellophane,” says McKenna. “I even tried to store them in jars in the fridge but it just doesn’t work.” Another option is to split open the leaf and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, and then freeze it in an ice tray to use as needed, says Foy.
Although evidence varies, the plant’s extract has long been heralded for its medicinal and beautification use, for anything from topical skin application to digestive health, but scientific studies are mixed on its status as a super food.
“It’s widely accepted that you can use it for not only sunburns but general skin heath as well,” says Foy. “I’ve also heard of people scooping out the flesh from the leaves and mixing it with water to create a drink.”
How to use your aloe plants around the house
Soothe a sunburn
Aloe contains sugars that contribute to healing. Simply split open an aloe leaf and rub it on the burn to take advantage of its anti-inflammatory properties. It works for bug bites too, though it may take a few days to feel the effects.
Spread some aloe gel on a cotton ball and wipe away the day. Before putting anything on your face, do a skin patch test somewhere less sensitive, like your arm or leg, to ensure you don’t have a reaction.
Combine ½ cup aloe with brown sugar, oatmeal (if you want extra moisture), or Himalayan sea salt (for an extra gritty mix). Rub it on your arms, elbows, heels, or anywhere else you have dry skin.
Make a conditioning hair mask
Apply aloe gel to hair and let it sit for several minutes before getting in the shower. Rinse.