With its long, serrated leaves and its healthful gel, Aloe vera plants are highly sought-after. The gel contains anti-inflammatory compounds, amino acids, enzymes, minerals, lipids, and vitamins, making it a valuable commodity in the healthcare world. It has been used by cultures for millennia as a topical and oral treatment, and continues to be used to ease all manner of skin irritations to this day.
It’s often mistaken for a cactus, thanks to its spiny edges and thick, succulent leaves; taxonomically, it belongs to the Asphodelaceae family. It’s not part of the Cactaceae, or cactus, family. The plant is indigenous to modern-day Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen. It has naturalized in the Americas, Africa, and part of Europe.
Aloe has multiple botanical synonyms: A. barbadensis, A. indica, and A. elongata.
These plants can grow up to three feet tall with succulent, sword-shaped leaves. The tall spikes of yellow-green flowers typically only emerge on plants grown outdoors, but you might see them indoors if you place your plant in enough direct sunlight.
- Genus: Aloe
- Species: vera
- Native To: Arabian Peninsula
- Sun Exposure: Typically bright indirect or diffused light
- Soil Preference: Well-draining loam or bark and moss
- Soil pH: 5.0-6.0
- Growing Zones: 9-11
- Toxicity: Mildly toxic to pets and humans if ingested.
Caring for Aloe Vera:
If you’ve ever had a burn and you put aloe on it to ease the pain, it likely came from this plant. The gel inside the leaves is part of the inner, mesophyll layer. This gel is a water storage element that enables the plant to survive during times of drought. Encompassing the gel layer is a layer of latex, and surrounding that is the skin of the leaf.
If you have an aloe plant, you can simply cut off a leaf and use the gel you find inside to treat bug bites, burns, and other skin ailments.
While you can find oral aloe vera products on the market, avoid ingesting the gel from your home-grown plants. Commercial products have had the aloin removed, which is a compound in the gel that can have a mildly toxic and pronounced laxative effect when ingested.
Even if you have no intention of using the gel, these plants make a stellar houseplant option as they’re adaptable, offer an architectural element to your home decor, and don’t require special care.
Aloes grow in full sun outdoors, and do best with similar conditions indoors. Unless you begin to see brown or rust-colored patches developing on the leaves, your plant is probably not in too bright of exposure.
Anything around six hours of direct sun is perfect. That means that placing the plant in a south-facing window will be your best bet, since these typically receive the most sun. A west or east-facing window will also work, but your aloe might become leggy and pale if it’s in conditions that are too dark.
Soil and Container Needs
At a minimum, a mature plant will need a container that is about 12 inches in diameter. The pot doesn’t need to be deep, as aloe’s roots are shallow. In fact, too tall of a container will be prone to tipping over as the long leaves develop.
Choose a container with drainage holes. Material isn’t important, but terra cotta or unglazed ceramic will dry out more quickly, which is a benefit with these plants. They also tend to have more weight than plastic pots.
Fill your chosen container with a potting mix that is targeted at cacti or succulents. Standard potting soil is too heavy and retains too much water for these plants to thrive.
These plants are succulents and can last long periods without water. They are intolerant of wet feet. These two elements combined mean that you should err on the side of underwatering rather than overwatering.
The easiest way to keep on top of watering is to invest in a water meter or use your finger. Either way, check the soil at two inches deep to determine if your aloe needs moisture. If you’re using your finger, that means sticking it in up to your second knuckle. If the soil feels totally dry that far down, it’s time to water.
During the dormant winter months, when the plant is growing more slowly or not at all, wait until the top three inches have dried out.
Aloes aren’t heavy feeders. They need food three times each year during the active growing season. Choose a mild, balanced, water-soluble houseplant fertilizer with an NPK rating of around 3-3-3 to 5-5-5.
Feed the soil following the manufacturer’s directions in the spring, early summer, and again in late summer.
Aloe vera doesn’t require active maintenance. At most, you’ll need to replenish the soil or size up the container every few years. Most potted plants need to have their soil replenished every few years. That’s because potting soil tends to become compacted, depleted of nutrients, and hydrophobic over time.
To replenish the soil, remove the plant from its container by gently supporting at the base with your hand and pulling it free. If the soil has compacted, you might need to use your other hand to gently wiggle the pot until the plant comes free.
Brush away the existing potting medium. Refill the container with a base of fresh medium, lower the roots into place, and fill in around them with more fresh medium. Water and add more soil if it settles. This should be done every three years.
Depending on the age of your plant and its growing conditions, you might also need to repot every two or three years. This can be done at the same time that you replenish the soil to reduce the shock to the plant.
Choose a container just one or two sizes larger than the existing one to limit the chance of waterlogging. Overly large containers require more water to reach the plant’s roots, which can result in too much water sitting against the roots.
Feel free to take your plant outside during the warm months. So long as the temperature is over 50°F and not hotter than 90°F, your plant will be fine. Bring it in if temperatures fall outside of this range.
So long as it will be receiving the same amount of light outdoors that it was receiving in, there’s no need to harden it off. But if it’s exposed to additional sun, harden it off for a week. Hardening off a plant means gradually introducing it to the conditions found outdoors. This would look like bringing your aloe into its outdoor spot for an hour and then back to its indoor spot. The next day, give it two hours in its outdoor spot, and so on. Do this for a week.
Propagating aloe vera is a straightforward process. As the plant matures, it begins to grow small pups or offsets. These are essentially miniature plants that are attached to the parent, and typically begins to happen when the plant is somewhere between three and five years old.
They will remain attached via the root system to the parent plant until they’re able to develop their own roots. At that point, they will continue to grow as independent plants.
Once these pups start forming, you can cut them away from the parent and plant them separately. Wait until the pup has leaves that are about six inches in height. Gently lift the offset up as far as the roots will allow. Take a sharp knife and carefully sever the pup’s roots from the parent’s roots.
Place the pup in a four or five-inch pot filled with cactus potting soil, burying the roots. Add enough water to give the soil the texture of a well-wrung-out sponge. If the soil settled when you did this, add a bit more so that the roots are covered.
Place the new plant in an area with the same environment as you would place a mature plant. No need to protect it while it’s young. You do, however, need to be more cautious about water. Add more when the top two inches of soil have dried out, but no sooner.
As the plant matures, it will need to be placed in successively larger containers.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
Aloes are rarely impacted by disease. They’re tough plants. The young leaves are mottled with cream or white spots. If you notice this, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s the normal development of the leaves, and they’ll transition to solid green in time.
However, if the leaves are already green and begin turning white, it’s possible that your plant is in too dark of conditions. Aloe needs a lot of sun to produce the chlorophyll that turns the leaves green. Without enough sun, they’ll lose their pigment.
If the plant is overwatered, it’s possible to drown the roots. This will result in collapsing leaves that are brown and mushy.
If you start to notice these symptoms, stop watering and don’t water again until the soil has completely dried out to three inches. Then, water lightly. The soil should never be muddy or soggy.
While it’s rare on indoor plants, aloe are susceptible to a fungal disease called rust. It’s caused by the fungal pathogen Phakopsora pachyrhizi. It causes yellow spots on the undersides of the leaves. It’s not typically fatal, but it should be treated to prevent it from spreading to the entire plant.
A fungicide containing copper is an effective way to treat the disease. Spray the plant on both sides of the leaves every three weeks until no new symptoms develop.
Aloe plants are regularly visited by a species of aphid that has evolved alongside the plants. It’s, unsurprisingly, called the aloe aphid (Aloephagus myersi). These yellow-green insects cluster in protected areas along the leaf, using their sucking mouthparts to remove the sap from the leaf.
As they feed, they cause the plant to lose vigor and the leaves might turn yellow or die.
Removing aphids is fairly easy on this plant. Take it to a sink, shower, or bathtub and cover the soil with a plastic bag to avoid waterlogging it. Then, gently wash the aphids off with a stream of lukewarm water. You can also wipe the pests off with a wet rag.
Keep at this for a few weeks, and eventually, they’ll be gone.