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A "Vera" Versatile Lily

By Audrey Stallsmith

aloe vulgaris

Aloe belongs in every kitchen. . .

James Duke--The Green Pharmacy

When you scorch your hand on a holiday pie pan or cookie sheet, you'll want to have a "burn plant" handy. Aloe vera, although it hails from east and south Africa, can easily be grown in a pot on your windowsill. A spiny succulent belonging to the lily family, it produces many offsets or "pups," so somebody will be happy to give you a start.

I can testify to its near-miraculous effect on burns. Once when I had scalded my hand, I applied aloe vera gel from a tube, and it turned the agony off like a switch for at least fifteen minutes. After that some pain did return, but in more subdued--and bearable--form.

In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke reports that aloe contains enzymes "that relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and decrease redness and swelling." He adds that the plant also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is what makes it such an excellent all-around healer for almost any kind of skin irritation.

Of course, you should run cold water over your throbbing skin first, and never try to treat second or third-degree burns yourself. You can rip a leaf off of the plant and apply the gel directly from it, if you want. Aloe is supposed to be more potent fresh, but it doesn't smell so great, which is why I prefer to buy the processed and scentless type!

Many people have probably been puzzled by Biblical references to the plant's sweet odor. But the aloes mentioned in scripture is an entirely different species, aquilaria agallocha--an incense tree also known as agalloch, eaglewood, or aloeswood. It was one of the spices used to embalm Christ's body.

Aloe vera, on the other hand, derives its name from the Arabic alhoeh or "bitter." Vera means "true," so the plant is sometimes known as the only true aloe, but there are plenty of others in the family. Although sometimes confused with agave, which blooms only rarely, aloe produces stalks of tubular yellow flowers quite frequently in tropical climates. But it probably won't do so on your windowsill.

You can buy aloe vera in many different forms: as the natural gel in ointments, as a liquid drink concentrate, or in capsules. Use the gel or ointment for burns, including sunburn. You may also want to try it on insect bites and stings, poison ivy or nettle rash, or other irritated skin such as bedsores, piles, and hemorrhoids. As it contains an antihistamine, it would probably be good for hives as well.

In a drink concentrate or capsules, aloe vera makes a good laxative. (Just be warned that it can turn the urine red.) Don't try to consume the gel from your plant, as that is much too potent a purgative, and could cause stomach cramps and diarrhea. Not to mention that it is reported to have a nauseous taste!

In ancient times, Jews and Moslems thought so much of the aloe plant that they frequently hung it above their doorways as a protector. Cleopatra is reported to have maintained her famous complexion with the gel, and Alexander the Great to have treated his soldiers' wounds with it.

As for me, I keep it on hand just in case I should every be so careless with boiling water again. Although the Biblical aloes may smell prettier, the bitter variety is one very "sweet" healer!

Note: Image is from the Herbarium Blackwellianum, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Library.