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 in a 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.

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.

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

 

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Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller closer view of the plant

 

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Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller showing thickness of leaves

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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 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.

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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

 

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Aloe vera var. chinensis closer view of the plant

 

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Aloe vera var. chinensis showing both the mature and young leaves are spotted, leaf markings are retained right through to maturity

 

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.

 

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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!

 

 

About Angelo (admin)

Angelo Eliades is a presenter, trainer, writer, permaculture consultant, urban permaculture pioneer and food forest specialist.
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23 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!

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    • 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

  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

  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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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  8. Danae Lambrinos says:

    Thanks. This was very useful.

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  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!

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  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:)

    Like

  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.

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