Aloe species - Lily family
by Greg Tilford c.2010
Appearance: Aloes are cactus-like members of the lily family (liliaceae), with narrow, tapering, proportionately thick, succulent leaves with spiny margins. There are perhaps 500 species of aloe, but the most common aloe of commerce is Aloe barbadensis, which we commonly know as “aloe vera” This species produces its leaves directly from a stout central stalk; in a rosette fashion, while several other varieties of aloe are branched; almost bush-like. Aside from these variances, all aloes share similar appearances and can grow very large. In some areas of Southwest Africa, aloes are seen in excess of twenty-five feet tall, with stems which are more than ten feet in circumference.
Flowers are small, tubular, characteristically lily-like in appearance, and are produced in leafless, terminal spikes.
.Habitat & Range: Aloes are indigenous to South and East Africa, and have been introduced to the West Indies, where a great deal of commercial cultivation takes place. In North America and Europe, aloes are used as landscape and garden plants, in areas with Mediterranean climates. They are popular indoor plants through much of the world.
Cycle & Bloom Season: Aloes are perennials which bloom opportunistically when mature. In other words, if they receive all of the elements they require to thrive, they will likely remain in bloom throughout each year of their lives.
Parts Used: Primarily the gel-like juice of the inner leaf, or the yellowish latex, contained immediately beneath the skin of the leaves.
Actions: Vulnerary (wound healing), emollient, antibacterial, antioxidant, immunostimulant, anticancer, antitumor, purgative, refrigerant.
Affinities: Skin, digestive, lymph system.
Preparation: Freshly pressed juice, or stabilized (commercial)aloe gel preparations are the most commonly used forms of aloe. Using this plant at home is as easy as cutting a mature leaf from the lower part of the plant and squeezing out the juice. Intravenous formulations of aloe constituents have been FDA approved and are available for use by veterinarians. Acemannan is a powerful immunostimulant.
Specific Uses: Aloe’s great claim-to-fame is from its use as a topical skin dressing. Fresh aloe juice or commercially prepared gel contains dozens of minerals, proteins, enzymes, polysaccharides, and other constituents which help to soften and soothe the skin, and promote the rapid healing of minor burns and wounds. Topical applications of aloe gel will likely bring immediate, cooling relief to flea bites, poison ivy, and sunburned ears— it is excellent for reducing the itch and tightening of post-surgical incisions. Applied after sutures are removed, the gel will reduce much of the irritation that so often leads to persistent chewing or scratching, and which may result in inflammation and infection. In any external application, apply enough juice to lightly cover the affected area and allow it to dry. If possible, keep the animal from licking it off— the idea is to leave it on as long as possible. Unless your animal has an adverse reaction to the juice (reddening, an allergy rash, etc.), aloe can be liberally applied once or twice per day, until the healing process is progressing well.
Internally, a small dose of aloe juice may be useful for healing minor injuries and irritations of the digestive tract, such as what may occur when Bowser swallows a jagged bone that looks like it should have been donated to a dinosaur exhibit.
Scientists have recently found that acemannan, a chemical compound found in aloe vera juice, acts as a strong immunostimulant in animals; particularly cats. It has been found to be especially effective in the treatment of fibrosarcoma and feline leukemia (FeLV). It is theorized that acemannan triggers an increase in the autoimmune attack upon the viruses which are believed to cause these usually fatal diseases. Typically, over 70% of cats that become ill with FeLV die within ten weeks of onset of disease. But, in a recent study, 44 cats with confirmed FeLV were intravenously injected with 2mg/Kg of this compound weekly, for six weeks, and re-examined six weeks after the treatment was terminated. At the end of the twelve week study, 71% of the cats were alive and in good health1. Acemannan has also been shown effective against cancerous tumors in rodents and canines2,3,4. Acemannan has since been FDA-approved for veterinary use, and will undoubtedly be tested in humans.
Other chemical compounds found in aloe juice have been shown to have antioxidant actions in the body.
Availability: Aloe gel, or juice (the difference being consistency) is available at health food stores. Any good nursery will have the plants.
Propagation & Harvest: Aloe is very easy to grow as a house plant. It requires well-drained, sandy soil and should only be watered once or twice a month. Avoid using potting soil— it retains too much moisture, and may cause rot problems. Ordinary garden soil will do fine. A happy aloe that receives plenty of sunlight will bloom continuously and reproduce aggressively from side-shoots. These shoots are easily transplanted into their own pots. If you live in an area where frost is rare, aloe can be planted in the garden. Again, just give it plenty of sun, don’t over water it, and it will be yours forever.
Alternatives and Adjuncts: Nothing really compares with aloe, but if you need it and don’t have it around, look toward chickweed, plantain, self-heal, and comfrey as topical alternatives. Internally, ginger, cayenne, red clover, cleavers, dandelion, yarrow, garlic, and burdock are worth considering to compliment the activity of aloe.
Cautions & Comments: Aloe must be used with caution if used internally in your animal, as it possesses strong purgative qualities that may result in digestive griping and severe diarrhea. The constituents you want to avoid when using aloe for internal applications are the anthraquinone compounds contained in the latex of the inner skin. Although several commercial laxative preparations use aloe latex in their formulas, we strongly discourage their use in animals. The laxative action of aloe latex is too drastic and irritative to be used in a holistic context. The juice of the inner leaf material is much gentler and can be used safely in small doses, but a big drawback is its bitter taste, which can make administration into many animals a real problem. In any case, if you intend to use aloe as a laxative, it should be administered for a short period of time. Like many anthraquinone laxatives, extended use of aloe can lead to digestive system dependency (i.e., it is habituating). For the do-it-yourself animal herbalist, aloe is best left for external applications. It is beleived that aloe constituents may be passed in mother’s milk to nursing infants5, so it should not be used in these circumstances.
1. Sheets MA, Unger BA, Giggleman GF Jr, Tizard IR. “Studies of the effect of acemannan on retrovirus infections: Clinical stabilization of feline leukemia virus-infected cats”. Mol Biother 3(1):41-5, 1991).
2. Peng SY, Norman J, Curtin G, et al. “Decreased mortality of Norman murine carcoma in mice treated with the immunomodulator, acemannan”. Mol Biother 3(2): 79-87, 1991.
3. Harris C, Peirce K, King G, et al. “Efficacy of acemannan in treatment of canine and feline spontaneous neoplasms”. Mol Biother 3 (4):207-213,1991)
4. Desai K.N.; Wei, H.; Lamartiniere, C.A. The preventive and therapeutic potential of the squalene-containing compound, Roidex, on tumor promotion and regression. Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 35294, USA. Cancer Lett, 101: 1, 1996 Mar 19, 93-6.
5. Werbach M., Murray M. Botanical Influences on Illness, Nijmegan, Netherlands, 1994, Third Line Press.