There are approximately 325 species of aloe. Nearly half of these are native to South Africa, most the rest to the tropical regions of Madagascar and Africa, around a dozen come from Arabia and the famous Aloe barbadensis grows in the Caribbean islands. Not all of them are useful healing/cosmetic sources and three are of primary medical significance: Aloe ferox, Aloe perryi and the Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis). These same medicinal aloes are also known as Aloe chinensis, Curacao Aloe, Cape Aloe, Aloe variegata, and Aloe saponaria. The most medicinally important is the Aloe Vera. It took its name "true aloe" from the Arabic "alloeh," and the Latin Vera which means true. It is also called Aloe Barbadensis after its supposed origin in the Barbados. Historically, the most esteemed aloes, called "Socotrine," or "Zanzibar" aloes, come from Socotra, an island in the Arabian sea 200 miles from the eastern most coast of Africa.
A mature Aloe barbadensis plant stands as high as three feet. Its multiple lance-shaped leaves grow from a rosette shape (meaning, "in the shape of a rose") at the foundation and narrow to a sharp pointed tip. Their surface is flat, fleshy, green and almost waxy with serrated edges protruding at half-inch intervals. The leaves are thick and filled with a gelatinous- like clear pulp that weigh as much as two pounds each. It is this gel that contains the plant's nutrients and healing properties.
Throughout the year, trumpet shaped flowers intermittently rise out of the aloe plant on stems that stretch far above the leaves. The Aloe barbadensis is the only variety of the aloe species with yellow rather than red flowers. The flowers produce seeds that can be cultivated, but the usual manner of propagating this plant is through sucker plants that grow as offshoots at the base of the parent plant. It takes an aloe plant four to five years to reach maturity. It remains productive for 20 to 25 years.
Recent research on the organic structure of the Aloe Vera gel has uncovered a number of medicinally significant properties in addition to its high percentage of aloin, once thought to be its most beneficial medicinal element.
Aloe In History
Aloe Vera has been praised for its recuperative capabilities for over three thousand years. A diversity of cultures throughout the centuries -- Chaldeans, Hebrews, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Algerians, Mayans, Africans, Chinese, Moroccans, Arabians, Indians and Pakistanis -- have kept records of their medicinal applications of aloe gel. While aloe is best known today for its ability to treat burns, it has been used for treating stomach disorders, headache, constipation, influenza and fevers, colic, kidney ailments, ringworm, skin, hemorrhoids, wounds, dystrophy, blistering, toothache, sunburn, menstrual problems, insomnia, snakebite, hair loss, meningitis and other ailments.
Ancient Egyptians used aloe for protection from the sun, for embalming procedures as well as in numerous medicinal preparations. Aloe in ancient Egypt was cultivated primarily in cemeteries. Aloe leaves were presented as gifts of respect to procure admittance to the rites that followed the death of a Pharaoh. Carvings of aloe leaves from as early as 4,000 BC have been discovered on vases and the walls of ancient Egyptian temples as well as on the sides of Pharaohs coffins. Legend has it that the road to the Pharaohs burial temple was lined with aloe plants.
One of the first written records of the plant was found in the ancient Egyptian scrolls, the Papyrus Ebers written in 1500 BC (and translated in 1875 by the German Egyptologist, George Moritz Ebers) that documented the medical practices of their day.
The Legend Lives On . . .
The two best known queens of Egypt, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, are legendary for their knowledge of natural and herbal beauty secrets. Both bathed in sour milk to beautify their skin; we now know that the glycolic acid in the milk has a beneficial effect on wrinkles. They also credited aloe as one of their most important beauty aids.
Clay tablets dating from 2100 BC to 1700 BC have been found in the ancient city of Nippur, south of Baghdad in Iraq, that record the Sumerian healers' use of aloes in their pharmacological preparations.
Aristotle was drawn to the city of Alexandria because it was considered the cultural center of his time. Aristotle was considered to be the foremost botanist of his time, and accordingly, he understood the properties and values of the aloe Vera plant. Many royal medicinal formulations in Greek and Roman pharmaceutical preparations contained aloe as an absolutely essential ingredient. The King of Alexandria assigned Aristotle to become the tutor of his 13-year-old son, Alexander III. It was from this time forward that Aristotle had as his pupil an individual who would grow up to become one of the greatest known world conquerors.
Used to heal wounds...
Aristotle was aware that the healing properties of aloe would be invaluable to soldiers wounded in battle and advised his student Alexander III ("the Great") to conquer all lands that grew it, especially the island of Socotra off the coast of eastern Africa. Socotra is mentioned many times in historical writings as a principal manufacturing hub for medicinal aloes in the Old World. Alexander took his teacher's advice. After a successful campaign against the island in 333 BBC, he exiled all its Phoenician residents and replaced them with his own Ionians (Greeks) to tend to his aloe production.
Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician in the Roman army, mentioned medicinal aloes in his encyclopedic Greek herbal De Materia Medica. (Approximately around 75 BC). Gaius Plinius (Pliny) Secundus wrote about aloe about the same time in his treatise Natural History. Both borrowed information from Quintus Sextius Niger who produced a history of aloes from India to Asia and Arabia in which he also mentioned the importance of aloe production on Socotra.
Mentioned in the Bible...
There are three bible references from the Old Testament that make mention of aloe. There is also a New Testament reference to the body of Jesus being embalmed in aloes (notably Aloe Barbadensis or Aloe Perryl).
Nomadic tribes in Africa dug up and replanted their aloe plants as they moved from place to place to be assure their continued access to this marvelous plant. In the republic of South Africa, the national floral emblem is Aloe ferox.
Spanish Jesuits are believed to be responsible for the introduction of Aloe barbadensis to North and South America in the mid 1500's, leaving a footprint of aloe plants as they moved about performing their missionary work. Following explorers and conquistadors, they carried the plant to Texas as they crossed the Rio Grande, and carried it west to California.
The qualities attributed to this remarkable plant throughout the ages are fascinating and hold up well under modern research.