Aloe Vera, also known as the true aloe or medicinal aloe, is a genus containing about 500 species of flowering succulent plants. The most common and well known of these is Aloe vera, or “true aloe”.
A member of the Lily family and native to Africa, aloe vera grows in hot climates and has fleshy, cactus like leaves which are packed with a wealth of nutrients. This is widely distributed in Africa, India, Nepal and other arid areas. Aloe flowers are tubular, frequently yellow, orange, pink or red, and are borne, densely clustered and pendant, at the apex of simple or branched, leafless stems.
One of the oldest therapeutic plants known to mankind, aloe vera is a very short-stemmed or stem-less plant, with thick and fleshy greyish-green coloured leaves and yellow flowers, and is bitter in taste with a pungent aftertaste. The plant is slimy, mucoid by nature and cold in action, which is why it is used in Ayurveda to cool excess body heat and to treat phlegm body humors. The extract of the Aloe Vera plant plays an important role in medicine and healthcare, and is available in the form of cream, gel, lotion, liquid, spray and capsule.
There are over 500 different species of Aloe plants, growing mainly in the dry regions of Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Of the 500+ species of Aloe, only a few were used traditionally as a herbal medicine, aloe vera again being the most commonly used version of aloe in herbal medicine. Aloe vera is a member of the lily family (family Liliaceae), though it looks much like a cactus plant. It is a perennial plant with yellow flowers. The leaves are rough, stiff, spiny and triangular, and may grow up to 20 inches long and 5 inches across.
Aloe leaves are have three distinct layers. The outer layer of the leaf is composed of tough tissue that protects the plant from the elements. Below the outer layer is a thin lining known as the chlorenchyma (parenchyma with chloroplasts) which helps the plant process ultraviolet light.
The inner layer is where the water and nutrients are stored. This layer makes up the majority of the plant and contains the healing gel. Between the chlorenchyma and the inner pulp there are numerous vascular bundles containing a bitter yellow sap.
Alow vera has been used for thousands of years to treat burns, heal wounds, treat ulcers, and relieve hemorrhoids. The use of aloe is thought to have begun in Egypt or the Middle East. The ancient Egyptians used aloe vera in their embalming and funeral procedures and pictures of the alow plant are found on the walls of caves and tombs. One legend reports that Cleopatra even used the herb to soften her skin. Dioscorides, a Greek historian, recommended aloe vera as a treatment for burns, kidneys and constipation.
Types of Aloe Products
Store shelves are lined with aloe products, and sometimes it is difficult to determine the highest quality products. One defining factor is the amount of aloe listed on the ingredient label. Aloe should be one of the first ingredient listed. When aloe vera extract is listed, be cautions. This could mean the product is highly diluted. Some common types and descriptions of aloe vera following:
Aloe Gel: The Gel is an undiluted gooey substance found in the center of the aloe leaves.
Aloe concentrate: The concentrate consists of the gel after the water content has been removed.
Aloe juice: The juice is a digestible version of aloe vera made from the gel. (It should be at least 50 percent aloe vera gel.)
Aloe Latex (aloin): The Latex is the bitter yellow liquid which comes from the pericyclic tubules of the outer rind of the leaf. The main constituent of Latex is aloin.