Aloe vera is arguably the most commercially grown succulent (followed by the tequila agave and supermarket kalanchoe). The medicinal and cosmetic value of the plant’s gel-filled leaves have been recognized for millennia, and it is reputed to have been part of Cleopatra’s beauty regimen. Google “Aloe vera” and you’ll get dozens of hits for products that use the gel in topical skin lotions or as a food ingredient.
Studies of the plant’s effectiveness for a wide range of ailments tend to be inconclusive, but no one questions the efficacy of Aloe vera at soothing minor burns. And because of its antimicrobial properties, it’s supposedly better than toothpaste at preventing cavities. But would you want to ingest the raw gel? It won’t hurt you (in small quantities) but it’s awfully bitter. Mixing it with honey and water is an option if you really want to take it internally, but don’t overdo it; it has laxative qualities.
In the garden, it serves as a nice (if not especially showy), midsized, low-water succulent. Instead of orange flowers typical of most aloes, those of Aloe vera are yellow. Its leaves are tapered, upright, gray-green, and grow to about waist-height. The plant is also colony-forming over time.
I grow Aloe vera mainly to have it on hand in case of sunburn. Slice a leaf lengthwise and rub the goo on your skin for soothing, instant relief. See my latest YouTube video: How to Harvest Aloe Vera Gel.
Aloe vera plants are available at large nurseries and garden centers and will thrive outdoors if protected from frost and desert heat. Like most succulents, Aloe vera needs plenty of sun, weekly watering, and soil that drains well. It also makes a good windowsill plant, although it is unlikely to bloom indoors.
Aloe vera is not the only medicinal aloe, and not all aloes have medicinal properties. In fact, some are poisonous. Duke Benadom of the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society and author of Superb Succulents researched and compiled this list of medicinal aloes (in blue) and poisonous aloes (in red) ~
Benadom notes, “It’s important for the general public to be aware of the fact that aloes are not all the same. I constantly hear people speak of the genus Aloe as Aloe vera, and after questioning, find they were unaware of more different kinds. The replies are usually along the lines of, ‘Aren’t they all the same?'”
Note, too, that Aloe arborescens—a popular landscape succulent—offers the same benefits as less common Aloe vera.