by Nancy Helms
As winter months descend on us and the days grow shorter, we may not think of owning an aloe vera plant. While most of us know the benefits of its healing power for sunburn and insect bites, it can also speed healing of frostbite, skin rashes, eczema, psoriasis and blisters. It can even relieve the pain of razor burn, so common during the dry cold of a Minnesota winter. Often called the wonder plant, it’s a useful addition to any home.
Aloe vera originated from Africa and was easily grown in the desert areas of Egypt. The plant has the ability to survive for long periods without water. The aloe vera plant has double the photosynthetic properties of other plants. Because of this, it needs more exposure to sunlight than regular plants. It has thick layers around the leaves that protect it from drying out. The two most common mistakes when growing aloe vera as a house plant are lack of sunlight and over watering.
The plant is a sun worshiper. It needs to be placed in a direct light, preferably a southern window. A good rule of the thumb is to make sure the shadow cast by the plant is inside of the house throughout the day. When the plant has enough sunlight, it will be a bright green. When there is a lack of sunlight it becomes a grayish green as the chlorophyll cells die. Constant sun exposure is a very important when growing aloe vera. Potted aloe vera plants require an indoor temperature above 50 degrees. Aloes have a shallow, spreading root system so choose a wide planter rather than a deep one. Make sure the pot has drainage holes in the bottom and use a drainage tray. Use a good commercial potting mix with extra perlite, granite grit or coarse sand added. You may also use a packaged cacti mix soil.
Aloe vera is a succulent, and as such, stores a large quantity of water within its leaves and root system. The aloe vera root is very thin. The plant likes to search for water. Aloe does not like it when life is too easy. Over watering will cause the thin roots to become saturated and rot. Try to master a method of watering the plant by pouring a little water in the drainage tray. The water will then move upwards to the root. The suction power of those thin roots should not be underestimated. Very little water should be used. The drainage tray should have rocks in it to increase the surface area of the water. The pebbles also double as good decorations. During the winter months, the plant will become somewhat dormant. During this period watering should be minimal, allowing the soil to become completely dry.
When you need to use aloe medicinally, just remove a lower leaf from the plant, slice it open and apply the gel on the affected area. In the case of a burn, immediate application of the fresh gel can relieve much of the pain and prevent blistering many times. Move your potted plant outdoors during the summer months in full sun or partial shade. Use a balanced liquid fertilizer during the spring and summer. With proper care, this plant will give you years of service.
Nancy Helms is an Anoka County Master Gardener.