|Aloe vera (A.barbadensis or A. vera)|
Aloe vera is also known as the Barbados aloe, burn plant, medicine plant, miracle plant and wand of heaven. This is an evergreen perennial and as such will have leaves ready to harvest all year round. It can be grown outside in a sheltered sunny spot but must be brought in during the winter months or during a frost. It also makes a really good house plant and this is probably where most people in the British Isles keep their aloe vera plants.
The raw edible parts of this plant are the leaves and the seed. The whole leaf can also be cooked but it is very bitter. Whilst this plant is easily grown, it doesn't flower freely in the British Isles so seed production may be a bit thin on the ground. We don't have any other information on the seed apart from the fact that they are edible.
The leaves consist of three parts. The first is the outer rind or skin. Next comes a layer of aloe latex which is a bitter, yellowy brown substance containing anthraquinones. These are usually filtered out in commercial products and they have strong laxative properties. Last is the centre of the leaf which consists of copious quantities of a tasteless clear gel. This inner gel is not laxative, is safe to eat and this is the bit we normally use.
The International Aloe Science Council explains how aloe is obtained commercially:
"To get to the inner leaf juice (aka aloe gel) without the latex and thus without the laxative effect, the plant is stripped of the outer rind either by hand or by machine (known as "filleting," because the inner leaf without its outer plant shell looks like a fish), and the latex is rinsed away. The remaining material is then ground or crushed into juice. The fibrous pulp is usually discarded. This process leads to aloe that is "decolorized" because removing the yellow latex leaves the juice clear.
Whole-leaf aloe is obtained by grinding the entire aloe leaf, then removing the rind material (usually using an enzyme treatment such as cellulose) and aloe latex via filtration (charcoal is a popular filtration form). A good filtration process removes the aloe latex down to 10 ppm or less in orally administered finished products and 50 ppm or less in cosmetic applications."
Obtaining the gel for home use
Take a sharp knife and slice off a leaf from the bottom of the plant close to the base. New leaves grow up from the middle so try to avoid taking those. Be careful of the edges of the leaves because they are serrated and quite prickly. Plop the base of the leaf straight into a mug or glass temporarily otherwise gel will ooze everywhere. When ready, take the leaf and place it flat on a chopping board and slice it in half lengthwise with a chef's knife. Scrape out the gel with the flattened knife and tip the gel into straight into a bowl or blender.
Use immediately otherwise the gel will oxidise and lose its beneficial properties. It would probably be OK in the fridge for a couple of hours but don't keep it for long. This gel is good added to smoothies or used on the skin as a wound healer. It is particularly good for burns and is very soothing. Aloe Vera has long been used as a home remedy and has many other medicinal applications.
Growing Aloe Vera
Aloe vera can be grown from seed but the seeds may take months to germinate. Sow during the spring in a free draining compost. Keep in a warm sunny spot like a greenhouse until the seedlings have grown and then pot on. It is probably quicker and easier to propagate this plant by taking cuttings or by removing the little offset plants or pups which are produced around the edge of the mother plant. These come with their own root and can be gently prised away from the mother plant. Use a knife if need be to cut the little plants free. Let the cut dry out or scab over and then pot them up.
If growing from cuttings, slice off a bottom leaf from the mother plant and leave it to dry so that the bottom scabs over. It may take a few days. Then place in a pot of free draining compost making sure a third of the plant is below the soil. Keep the soil moist for the first few weeks. The stalk may shrivel a bit but don't worry and don't over water. It should root quite quickly.
Water the plants about once a month but let the soil dry out in between watering. Aloe vera can be grown in most soils but prefers a free draining soil suitable for a cactus. We don't feed ours with anything in particular except leftover herbal tea. We do, however, refresh most of the soil every year preferring to use our own home made vegan organic compost for this.
We tried growing the aloe outside but ended up faffing about worrying about it being too cold or frosty. Beware if dark shrivelled leaves appear as they are a sign of frost damage. We thought it would like a hot sunny spot but found that it didn't like direct sunlight at all. In fact the leaves turned an orangey/brown colour and become very stressed. Ours do much better inside than out and the plants are much easier to use especially during the winter.