As a kid I remember my grandmother screeching from an occasional but always painful burn to the fingers from a hot stove. Yet she instantly knew what to do to end her misery: reach for a leaf from the aloe vera plant growing on her kitchen windowsill.
After popping off a thick lower leaf, she would rub the broken end over her burn, coating it with the sticky gel inside—then remind us kids what wonderful healing powers her little plant held.
Today aloe vera—a plant whose medicinal uses have been hailed as far back as Greek and Roman
times—is enjoying renewed interest as succulents in general become more
popular than ever with gardeners.
Aloe vera is just one of some 400 species of aloe, which is native to northern Africa. But it is this “true aloe” plant—also commonly called miracle plant, medicine plant and burn plant—that’s the best known. Not only does the clear gel inside its leaves serve a multitude of uses, but the plant itself is so easy to grow.
This short-stemmed succulent with pointy, slightly variegated leaves flourishes in warm, dry climates. A member of the lily family, it’s most often considered a houseplant but also can be grown outdoors as well, preferring indirect light and, like most succulents, very little water. In winter, move it indoors because it can’t tolerate cold temperatures.
Indoors, aloe prefers the kind of bright light my grandmother got on her kitchen windowsill and even less water than outdoors. Water this houseplant only when soil is completely parched to the touch, allowing it to dry out completely again before re-watering.
If you’re growing aloe vera for its medicinal uses—which include everything from treating and healing burns and scratches to soothing itchy skin and serving as moisturizer—buy the largest plant you can find at the garden center. That’s because the larger the leaves, the more potent the aloe within the plant. And remember that like most succulents, aloe vera is a slow grower.
Once it gets larger, transplant the aloe to a larger pot and look for babies—new little shoots that can be removed and planted in their own pot a month or so later as they mature.