Potted plants are big news at the moment, because lots of people in urban areas like to see leafy plants in their homes. It brings the garden into the home when you live in a city. Indoor plants also purify the air by using up carbon dioxide, before emitting oxygen. However modern centrally heated homes, with warm and dry air, make it difficult to grow traditional greenhouse-raised plants such as orchids, indoor cyclamen and African violets. However succulent plants such as aloe vera, from warmer parts of the world, thrive in drier air and once you buy them you’ve got them forever.
These evergreen ‘spikies’ also offer year-long structure and form for minimum effort. Not surprisingly garden centres are selling hundreds of succulent plants and cacti. They fly out!
Ornamental and medicinal
One of the most popular is Aloe vera a native of the Arabian peninsula. It’s commercially grown in many other arid parts of the world, both as an ornamental plant and for medicinal purposes. This soothing plant is found in hand creams, lotions, sun creams, shampoos, cosmetics and ointments. The ancient Egyptians used the gel and sap from the plant and there’s an illustration on the Ebers Papyrus dated 16BC. It’s also mentioned in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, both written in the first century BC. Although some recommend ingesting the plant in drink, modern medicinal thinking does not advise this because the latex (the yellow substance between the gel and the skin) could cause kidney damage.
A plant on the kitchen windowsill could be used to treat a burn, after the affected area has been run under cold water for several minutes.
Find out more about the health benefits aloe vera.
Choosing your aloe vera plant
Start with a healthy looking plant with good plump foliage.
Before buying gently tug the top, because vine weevil can be problem with all fleshy-leaved and stemmed plants. A badly affected with a poor root system isn’t a good buy. Watch the spines though!
Where to position an aloe vera
Place your aloe in bright light, but not full sun. Succulent plants and cacti do not enjoy the glare of full midday sun. In the wild they tuck themselves in slightly shaded positions.
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What compost to use for aloe veras
Drainage is key. A gritty, free-draining compost is best. If there isn’t any coarse grit in the mix, shake off as much of the soft compost and repot in cactus compost with added grit. Adding perlite, which sheds water, also helps.
Always use pots with holes in the base. If you use a cache pot, lift it out when watering and allow the pot to drain.
Watering your aloe vera
Only water when the compost feels dry. The acid test is to poke a finger tip into the compost. If it feels damp - don’t add more water. Never let your aloe sit in water.
Repotting an aloe vera
Repot your aloe vera if the plant gets too large, but keep the newly potted plant on the dry side for ten days. This will encourage a good moisture-seeking root system. Some aloes are spiny, because this deters grazing animals in the wild. Wrap your plant in newspaper before handling - or wear thick gloves!
Find out what you can do with old potting soil.
Propagating your aloe vera
You will get aloe vera offsets. These can be cut away and should be allowed to callous over before potting. Leave them in a dry place for a couple of days and then pot them up in a gritty mixture.
Putting your aloe vera outdoors
Established aloes can go outside for summer, in a right position and not baking sun.
You can plant them in single pots of mix them with other succulent plants in outdoor summer containers.
Harvesting your own aloe vera gel
Take off one mature leaf and cut it lengthways and then squeeze.
You can also cut the leaf across and rub the affected burn or sore place.
Aloe vera and related varieties, clockwise from top right: Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata), Aloe variegata, Aloe aristata.
Aloe vera varieties
There are 500 species in all. Aloe vera is widely available, although the others also make good houseplants.
True aloe (Aloe vera )
This widely available aloe has spiny-edged upright green leaves. It
rarely flowers in this country, although if you’re very sunny and warm it may produce yellow flowers.
The stripe-stemmed aloe - (Aloe striatula)
A larger, hardy aloe from South Africa, which bears yellow flowers that resemble red hot pokers. This sprawling aloe will grow outside in gravel gardens, but may be lost after a cold winter. If this happens, be patient because it might reappear in July. 3ft/ 1m if happy
Other aloes and aloe-like plants
The lace aloe (Aloe aristata)
Fleshy leaved, grey-green rosettes resembling house leek or sempervivum. Orange-red flowers will appear in warm summers and this plant also makes babies or ‘pups’. There is a selected form called ‘Cosmo’. 20cm
Tiger or partridge-breasted aloe (Aloe variegata)
Cockades of upright, smooth green foliage attractively barred in silver-white. Best grown indoors for most of the year, where it might produce orange flowers. 20 - 30cm
Aloe zebrina 'Danyz'
One of the showiest indoor aloes, with variegated green and cream leaves encased by a serrated orange border. 30cm
Zebra plant (Haworthia fasciata 'Big Band')
This close relative of the aloe plant, with distinctive green fleshy leaves etched with strong white lines, could easily be mistaken for an aloe. It produces handsome rosettes and occasional white flowers. 20cm
Aloe vera suppliers
Crocus - www.crocus.co.uk
Cactus Shop www.cactusshop.co.uk
Gardeners Dream www.gardenersdream.co.uk
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