Identifying and Growing Edible Aloe Vera

edible-aloe-vera-barbadensis-800

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:

  • Aloe vera
  • Aloe barbadensis
  • Aloe vera var. barbadensis
  • Aloe vera var. chinensis

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.

  • Edible Aloe vera is referred to as Aloe vera barbadensis, Aloe barbadensis or Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller.
  • Non-edible Aloe vera is referred to as Aloe vera var. chinensis

How do we tell the different Aloe vera plants apart?

Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller has thick, wide, fleshy upright leaves which are gray-green in colour, and produces yellow flowers.

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-2
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller has a green to grey-green colour and a very distinct circular rosette form

 

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-1
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller closer view of the plant

 

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-3
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller showing thickness of leaves

 

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-5
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller showing width of leaves, exceedingly broad at the base

 

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-7
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller showing width of leaves from underside

 

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-6
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller plant structure, with few very thick leaves forming a rosette shape

Aloe-vera-barbadensis-miller-edible-8
Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller plant, showing the distinct difference between the spotted younger leaves, and the mature leaves, which have no spots.

 


Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller produces yellow flowers, different from the non-edible variety which has orange flowers.

 

Aloe vera var. chinensis has less thick, narrow spotted leaves and produces orange flowers. This is the Aloe vera variety that is commonly sold for treating burns.

Aloe-vera-chinensis-nonedible-1
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-chinensis-nonedible-2
Aloe vera var. chinensis closer view of the plant

 

Aloe-vera-chinensis-nonedible-3
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 var. miller growing in a large pot.

aloe-vera-varieties-comparison-chinensis-barbadensis-1
On the left, a leaf of non-edible Aloe vera var. chinensis compared to a leaf of edible Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller. Note the difference in thickness, colour and the leaf markings.

 

aloe-vera-varieties-comparison-chinensis-barbadensis-2
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 var. miller behind it.

 

Growing 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.

Indoors, Aloe vera is often grown in the kitchen or bathroom for emergencies to deal with 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:

 

 

About Angelo (admin)

Angelo Eliades is a presenter, trainer, writer, permaculture consultant, urban permaculture pioneer and food forest specialist.
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55 Responses to Identifying and Growing Edible Aloe Vera

  1. Giuliana Scott says:

    Excellent comparison of varieties. Thank you for sharing with us!

    Living here in Florida, we see both, and I think I have both varieties in the yard (haven’t tried to eat them LOL!) But use them for sunburn from time to time. Thanks again!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Thanks! They both work great for sunburn, you get quite a large amount of aloe vera gel from the huge thick leaves of the edible variety!

      Like

      • Avner Dinits says:

        Dear Sir there is Aloe vera with yellow flowers … but barbadensis from Barbados dont exist… just mislabeled. the var sinensis is just a clone of aloe masswanensis from east Africa and is not aloe vera at all…. by the way Miller is botanist and not a variety so there is not var miller… thank you for your attention.

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Thanks for your comment. In this article I explain the differences between the edible and non-edible varieties of Aloe vera so that people don’t accidentally eat the wrong one, and I do point out the confusion around the names. The names I use are what people know them as, and I use those names for practical purposes rather than academic ones.

        As a working horticulturist, I’m all too familiar how we have to deal with confusion around the botanical names of plants. Botanists every now and then discover some minor genetic differences between plants and decide to reclassify a plant to a different genus or species, sometimes even to a whole different family. We have to deal with the real-world confusion when people ask for plants by botanical name, sometimes using the former names rather than the current ones.

        Please realize that plant botanical names are essentially human abstractions and nature doesn’t fit into neat categories that the human mind prefers for convenience. Don’t forget that Aloes hybridise readily, just like many other plants, which throws human conventions of reductionist categorisation into disarray, as genetic diversification through reproduction is an essential survival strategy of many plants. Also, in taxonomy there is no total universal consensus or agreement about how we classify living organisms, and depending on which sources you consult, there will be different opinions. When reviewing government science publications for my article Australian Native and Exotic Fire Resistant Trees and Plants for Fireproof Landscapes, I found that the taxonomical classifications for certain native trees varied from one state government to another within the same country, depending on which convention they chose to use!

        The reason why traditional societies use only common names for plants is to have sense of shared meaning that they all agreed to, and that’s it. Botanical names try to do much more, they attempt to explain where the plant fits in on the taxonomical tree and how it is related to other plants, which most people couldn’t care less about, except for botanists and horticulturists. For all intent and purpose, when we use the term “edible Aloe vera”, we use it as a common name so we know which one to eat! The botanical names I have supplied are the ones that production and retail nurseries sell them as, so people can know what to ask for when they go out and buy them. They do sell them as Aloe barbadensis var. miller, and if you do an internet search for plant sales, you’ll see that’s the case. Names also differ between nations with different languages, and I’m sure that in North Africa they have their own name for the edible variety of this plants, as they would in the SW Arabian Peninsula, and in China if you ask for the traditional Chinese medicine plant lú huì you would get the right one.

        If names were sufficient, then I would not have needed to write such a long article with so many pictures to help people identify the plant! 🙂

        Like

  2. Catherine says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s quite thought-provoking to me as a dog owner and a sometimes dog-blogger. There’s often discussion about the use of aloe vera for treating dog skin problems, because it’s almost inevitable that the dog will lick the sore spot and ingest the aloe vera gel. I’ll be looking more closely now at my own plant, as I use it often on my own dog. As far as I can remember, there’s some issue also about whether the dog owner used the thick gel on the dog’s skin, or the thinner more liquid part that lies directly under the leaf covering. (I can’t quite remember the details of that discussion.)

    Like

  3. tonytomeo says:

    These Aloe vera can be SO confusing! I see them in stores labeled as Aloe vera, but they are various species, including Aloe arborescens, and even Bulbine caulescens!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      So true, common names of plants are used so loosely they create lots of unnecessary confusion, something you’d appreciate as a fellow horticulturist.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wilfried Lux says:

      aloe arborescens is the king of medicinal aloe when it comes to cancer treatment. It is the species from the popular recipe of Father Romano Zago

      Liked by 1 person

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        I’m also growing Aloe arborescens, which is also known as candelabra aloe. There has been lots of interest around its theraputic benefits, I’ll have to write an article about this plant and how to identify it!

        Like

      • tonytomeo says:

        ?! I was not aware of that! It is one of the more common types here, and is quite common on the coast a few miles away. It happens to be one of my favorites, and I do not mind using it as Aloe vera.

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Just be aware that Candelabra aloe is a different species, and while the gel can be used for various skin conditions, it contains additional active compounds which serve other therapeutic purposes. I’ll write an article on this soon!

        Liked by 1 person

      • tonytomeo says:

        Oh, I am aware of that. However, I am not certain if I have ever seen a real Aloe vera. I have seen many that are labeled as such, but they are all something else.

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Totally agree with you on that Tony. i will soon post up pictures of teh Aloe vera flowers of the two varieties to make identification a bit easier for people! Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • tonytomeo says:

        That will be interesting, because I really have no idea what it looks like or if I had ever seen it before. It would be totally funny if the Aloe vera that is outside is the real thing!

        Like

  4. Jim says:

    Thank you so much, is the Aloe vera var. chinensis actually toxic or poisonous when you say non-edible, what would be the symptoms of eating it, and what colour are the flowers.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Flower colours described in the article, the non-edible variety is not considered toxic but it’s a strong laxative and was historically used for that purpose! I’ve avoided describing medicinal uses and alleged toxicity of various compounds in Aloe vera plants other than in a historical context as I’m not providing health advice.

      Like

      • Jim says:

        Thank you, i think i have both varieties, when i cut one and placed in water it turns dark red then turns a dark purple almost do you know if this is Aloe vera barbadensis it looks the same yet hasn’t flowered yet for me to confirm, the other variety stays clear once the aloenin has all come out in water.

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  5. Jim says:

    That is the water changes colour not the plant.

    Like

  6. Boon Hong Wong says:

    I took young plant from aloe vera that doesn’t have spots, but it has spots even when matured. The flowers are pink in colour. I assume this is not edible?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      If the Aloe leaves have spots or streaks when they are mature then the plant is not the edible one. There are lots of other Aloes which are not Aloe veras.

      Like

  7. B says:

    Thanks so much for this post, that really helps to explain a couple of things. Are both aloe vera varieties equally ok and good for using on the skin? I’ve tried to find info regarding the use of other aloe species, but so far to no avail. Have you come across any books or studies about the family more generally?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Both varieties of Aloe vera are excellent for using on your skin, they work really well! Most other Aloe species don’t have any uses other than as garden ornamental plants, the only other useful Aloe is the Candelabra Aloe (Aloe arborescens), which has anti-cancer properties.

      Like

  8. Danae Lambrinos says:

    Thanks. This was very useful.

    Like

  9. Colleen A Smith says:

    Good info! But the aloe that grows in my front yard in Arizona is green with a slight pink color. I have used it on sunburns but want to use it for heart burn. Any ideas?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Colleen, the very large growing Aloes, Bitter Aloe (Aloe ferox) and Candelabra Aloe (Aloe arborescens) can be used medicinally as an ointment, with the gel applied to the skin for burns and skin other irritations, much like regular (non-edible) Aloe vera. They are definitely not edible in the regular sense, I believe that they’ve been used traditionally as laxatives but contain harmful potentially compounds that can affect health detrimentally with continued use – don’t eat them!

      Like

  10. Cindy says:

    I was SO happy to find your article amongst the plethora of Google options! Thank you for clear photo comparisons and cutting the confusion. I live in israel and there are SO many similar plants. Inherited a place with lovely aloe barbadensis.
    Though I’ve eaten it for a while, can you recommend a reliable link for preparation?
    (I do want to be wise though I’m very adventurous:)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Chris says:

    Very useful info especially appeciate the photos that shows the diffeence between the edible and non edible variety. Wish I had read this article before purchasing my first aloe vera, I hadn’t known there was a difference! Also never knew they could flower till mine did. I’m on the hunt for the edible variety now and know what to look for thanks to you. Plants sold here in Borneo are usually never labelled.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Foz says:

    Thank you very much for such a detailed comparison of the 2 varieties. I’ve been searching for such comparison endlessly and gave up hope when I stumbled upon your article.
    Very well written and described. You have cleared all my doubts about the different names given to the same species which created all the confusion the more I read about it on the other sides.
    Thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Véronique says:

    Have you got photos of the edible Aloe vera flower . I have a photo of mine, it is kind of orange /pink with green tips… Can I send you the photo. A part from that, the leaves look like yours and make nice little jelly like cubes after being stripped and washed. I would just like confirmation that I am not poisoning my family!!!

    Like

  14. James Bronson says:

    Aloe plants are no different than any other commercially grown plant unless its certified organic bought from the farm itself. Fungicides and insectacides are not in your best interests and levels could shock you. Many edible plants have toxic qualities such as cherry pits/apple seeds and rice. Slight usage on a dogs skin could irritate the spot like any mammal not updated for geographical orgin of what they might be exposed to. Same with you and honey of unknown origin. A slight lick will update old codes just like you getting allergy shots or eating honey locally processed. But you must know and trust plants orgin and authenticity. Most people buy dog food loaded with synthetic toxins and dogs today are in great distress the average owner or breeder/trainer handler isnt schooled in. My best friends family has a very large up to date animal hospital with 100 plus staff. The dog or pet food subject is industrial physics on a few levels human hospitals call a specialist for. I dabble more than most, odd but a hobby near 40yrs now. A holistic healer naturalist of sorts. I am up on modern day issues pets people and what to do cheaply.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Thanks James, the benefit of growing your own food and herbs is that you get to decide what goes into the soil and onto the plants, and any sensible person would not want to put anything harmful to their health onto something they would want to eat or use on their bodies! Grow your own, grow organic, keep the planet and the people healthy! 🙂

      Like

  15. Boris says:

    Thanks for this information.

    Like

  16. Maryann P says:

    Thanks! Super helpful info, pix.

    Like

  17. Rafał says:

    Thank you for this article. It is very helpful!

    Like

  18. gunj says:

    can we eat white spotted aloevera

    Like

  19. Micheline says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I now understand clearly which variety is edible. I do have a question. Is the edible variety useful for cuts, burns and minor skin irritations also? The reason that I am asking is because my apartment is so big!

    Thank you
    Micheline

    Like

  20. Micheline says:

    Oops! I see in previous comments that my query was already answered!

    Like

  21. Valerie Clarke says:

    Can you please tell me the name of aloe Vera that I can eat and where to buy it and can I put the aloe Vera in a blender thank you so much I m I right in saying the plant is good for skin 🌿🌿🌿🤣🤣🤣

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Valerie, that’s what the whole article was about! 🙂
      Aloe vera barbadensis miller variety is the name used for the edible variety of Aloe vera, and it’s excellent for use on your skin too.
      I’ve included pictures in this article to help with its identification.

      Like

  22. Lucille says:

    How would I prepare the edible variety to use as juice or in a salad?
    Thanks, book collector

    Like

  23. Angela says:

    Is it safe to make soap out of the non edible variety please?

    Like

  24. VeganLion says:

    We recently acquired a climbing aloe. It’s leaves aren’t spotted, does that mean it’s edible? Also looking for if it’s fruit is edible…

    Like

  25. Emma Bradley says:

    Great information, thank you so much! I am wondering about the fruits of Aloe’s…do they have a fruit ?! What does it look like?
    Thanks again for a very helpful article!

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Emma, if the flowers of Aloe plants are pollinated, they produce seed pods which eventually dry out and release the seeds.

      Pollination is carried out by long-beaked nectar-feeding birds, such as sunbirds in Africa, and hummingbirds in other parts of the world.

      Aloe plants can’t be self-pollinated because the flowers are protandrous (which means ‘first-male’), as the male parts of the flower, the anthers, ripen first and release pollen before the female part of the flower, the stigma is receptive to be fertilised by the pollen. Multiple plants are required for pollination, and if different varieties of Aloes are grown nearby, they will be cross-pollinated, and the seeds produced by the plants will be hybridised.

      Like

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