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Identifying and Growing Edible Aloe Vera

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Aloe vera is a hardy succulent semi-tropical plant which is native to North Africa and the SW Arabian Peninsula, but at the present time can almost be found worldwide. It’s a very tough plant which will grow in poor soil and hot, dry sunny locations, but can also be grown as an indoor plant near a window with bright natural light

The thick leaves contain a gel which is commonly used externally to treat skin irritation, minor burns, sunburns, itching due to allergies and insect bites, sores and skin ulcers. Aloe vera is possibly the oldest and the most used medicinal plant worldwide, its recorded medicinal use dates back historically to well over 2,000 years. It is also used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) where it is known as lú huì 蘆薈.

There is a growing interest in the health benefits of Aloe vera juice currently, and as a result some people are deciding to grow their own plants for the purpose. It’s important to understand that there are different varieties of Aloe vera, and the common variety for burns is not meant to be eaten, it’s just meant to be applied to the skin.

Lets look at the differences between the Aloe vera varieties, so we can distinguish the edible variety from the non-edible one.

Which Aloe Vera Variety is Edible?

There is more than one variety of Aloe vera, and Aloe vera barbadensis Miller variety is usually mentioned as the most beneficial variety of Aloe vera, and as the edible one. Trying to find this Aloe vera is made much more difficult thanks to the botanists who have made a complete mess of the names!

To quote the San Marcos Growers website article on Aloe vera:

“The scientific name assigned to this aloe has been changed several times in the last few years from Aloe vera to Aloe barbadensis and then back to Aloe vera. It seems that this controversy dates back to the two names being published a couple weeks apart back in April of 1768. In “The Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons” (Edited by Urs Eggli, Springer-Verlag 2001) L.E. Lewis, the author on the section Aloaceae, lists the plant as Aloe vera (Linné) Burman and notes that Linné (Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus) did not pubish the combinations of Aloe vera as a numbered species and that Gilbert Westacott Reynolds in “The Aloes of tropical Africa and Madagascar” (1966) argued that the name should be A. barbadensis but had overlooked the combination published by N.L. Burman (not later than April 6, 1768), which has priority over Miller’s name [A. Barbadensis]. Lewis cites as reference for this information L.E. Newton’s article “In defence of the name Aloe vera” in the the “Cactus and Succulent Journal of Great Britain” (1979:41-2).”

Currently, according to botanists, all these names refer to the same plant:

When a plant botanical name has a person’s surname name after it, such as Aloe vera barbadensis Miller, this is the name of the person/s who first made the original description in a published journal or book. They are referred to as the ‘author’ for that plant name, and their name follows the genus and species in a full citation.

In the real world, horticulturists and growers differentiate the edible and non-edible Aloe vera varieties in a much simpler way, even if it’s not supposedly academically correct.

How do we tell the different Aloe vera plants apart?

How to Identify Edible Aloe Vera

Aloe vera barbadensis Miller has thick, wide, fleshy upright leaves which are gray-green in colour, and are arranged in a very distinct circular rosette form.

The younger leaves are spotted with white flecks or streaks, just like the non-edible variety, but these markings disappear as the leaves get older. The mature leaves are plain in colour, without any white spots or streaks.

This variety produces yellow flowers, which are different from the non-edible variety that has orange flowers.

Aloe vera barbadensis Miller has a green to grey-green colour and a very distinct circular rosette form
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller closer view of the plant
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller showing thickness of leaves
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller showing width of leaves, exceedingly broad at the base
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller showing width of leaves from underside
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller plant structure, with few very thick leaves forming a rosette shape
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller plant, showing the distinct difference between the spotted younger leaves, and the mature leaves, which have no spots.
Aloe vera barbadensis Miller produces yellow flowers, different from the non-edible variety which has orange flowers.

How to Identify Non-Edible Aloe Vera

Aloe vera var. chinensis has narrow spotted leaves that are a blue-green in colour, and and are arranged in a flatter and stacked form, rather than a round rosette form kike the edible variety.

Both the young and older leaves are spotted with white streaks or markings, which are retained right through to maturity, and never disappear

This variety produces orange flowers, which are different from the edible variety that has yellow flowers.

This is the Aloe vera variety that is commonly sold for treating burns.

Aloe vera var. chinensis has a blue-green colour (not shown well in these photos) and a very different form, somewhat flatter and stacked rather than a rosette
Aloe vera var. chinensis closer view of the plant
Aloe vera var. chinensis showing both the mature and young leaves are spotted, leaf markings are retained right through to maturity.
Aloe vera var. chinensis produces orange flowers, different from the edible variety which has yellow flowers.

The tubular yellow or orange flowers of Aloe vera plants are grown high on long stems in spring to summer once the plants reach a certain level of maturity, usually when they’re around four years old.

A more definite way to identify the Aloe vera barbadensis Miller variety is by comparing the young and the mature leaves, they will look different. The pups (baby plants growing at the sides of the parent plant) and young leaves on the mature plants will be ‘spotted’, they will have many white or pale green markings, which will vanish as the plant matures and the leaves get larger and thicker. The leaves are also green or grey-green in colour.

With Aloe vera var. chinensis the spotted leaves will not change as they mature, the young and the mature leaves look the same, with the only difference being in their size. The leaves are a different colour, more of a blue-green.

As a side-by-side comparison, I cut a mature leaf of Aloe vera var. chinensis (it’s the narrow leaf, the non-edible variety that’s applied to the skin only), against a mature leaf of Aloe vera barbadensis Miller growing in a large pot.

On the left, a leaf of non-edible Aloe vera var. chinensis compared to a leaf of edible Aloe vera barbadensis Miller. Note the difference in thickness, colour and the leaf markings.
On the front, a narrow spotted mature leaf of non-edible Aloe vera var. chinensis compared to a much wider plain-coloured mature leaf of edible Aloe vera barbadensis Miller behind it.

How to Grow Aloe Vera

Aloe vera grows in full sun to part shade, is very drought tolerant, and will tolerate cold, it’s hardy to -2°C (28°F). It grows naturally in hot, humid climates with high rainfall, in well drained soils with high organic matter. It does best with an annual rainfall of 500mm or more.

Even though Aloe vera will grow in most soil types, it doesn’t like ‘wet feet’, where the soil stays wet and soggy for long periods, especially during colder weather. Dig in compost before planting to help with drainage in clay and other water-retentive soils.

In locations which are too shady, Aloe vera plants becomes weak and vulnerable to disease, so it’s best to ensure they get sufficient light when grown outdoors.

When growing Aloe vera in a pot or container, it’s important to use a very well draining potting mix such as ‘cactus and succulent mix’, and most gardeners use terracotta pots to grow them in because they drain much better. Water frequently in hot, dry extreme weather as Aloe vera plants growing in pots can get quite burnt and wilted if they are in a harsh, exposed open position and their water supply runs short.

Growing Aloe Vera Indoors

Aloe vera is often grown indoors in the kitchen or bathroom, where it can be readily used for small emergencies such as minor burns and skin irritations. It will grow well near a bright window which receives midday and afternoon sun. Let the pot dry out before rewatering, and ensure that the pot doesn’t sit submerged in a saucer of water. Avoid placing plants too close to the glass as there isn’t much air circulation and a lot of localised heat build up when a strong sun shines through. The non-edible Aloe vera var. chinensis is a much better plant for growing indoors on a kitchen bench, as it’s a much smaller plant and can be kept quite compact.

With both Aloe vera varieties, harvest the older outer leaves when required. If you need to create more plants, give the plants time to grow and they’ll multiply prolifically, whether in a pot or in the ground. Gently pull up the offshoots or pups growing around the parent plant and repot them, that’s all there is to it! Propagating Aloe vera is very easy and enjoyable, and a great way to create an endless amount of plants!

You might also like these other articles on Aloe vera plants:

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