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Herbal Mystery #1
by Susan Wittig Albert
February 20, 2000

  • What herb led an emperor to invade an island, and was a regular part of Cleopatra’s beauty regimen?

  • What herb serves as a bandage, actually regenerates skin tissue, and makes an excellent shampoo?

  • What herb thrives on heat, dry soil, and neglect?

When the conquered Egyptians told Alexander the Great about a miracle plant that would heal his soldiers’ wounds, he decided he had to have it—and that’s why he invaded the island of Somalia, the home of aloe vera (pronounced a-lo veer-a). Cleopatra used aloe gel ointment to keep her skin soft, the Arabs used aloe on graves as a symbol of regeneration and resurrection, and you can use it to heal burns. If you don’t already have an aloe plant growing on your kitchen window sill, get one, and see for yourself the many different uses of this amazing plant.

Aloe is a succulent that belongs to the Lily family. It has fibrous roots and thick, fleshy leaves (varying from gray to bright green) with blunt teeth along the edges. If you peel off the green skin, you’ll find a jelly-like substance inside. It is this aloe gel, which is made up of a number of plant chemicals, that possesses such remarkable healing properties.

The aloe is an African native, and from there made its way into many different cultures. Aloe is mentioned in the Papyrus Ebers, an Egyptian document of 1500 B.C. By the time of Jesus, the plant had traveled to the Mediterranean area, where it was used to treat wounds, burns, skin ailments, skin cancers, ulcers, hemorrhoids, hair loss, mouth and gum diseases, and even insomia. Arab traders took aloe to India and China in the sixth century, but because the plant doesn’t survive freezing, it was much less used in Northern European medicines. It did not come into modern use until the late 1950’s, when a chemical engineer named Rodney Stockton (who became an aloe enthusiast when he used it to treat a severe sunburn) figured out how to stabilize the gel and keep it from spoiling. Since then, a fair amount of research has been done on the plant, documenting the effectiveness of aloe’s traditional uses as a medicinal herb. Aloe gel, scientists have learned, possesses a mixture of chemicals that have antibiotic, astringent, and coagulating properties. That’s why the gel can fight infection in your finger, dry your poison ivy rash, and seal a cut in your hand wound. It also appears to actually stimulate the regrowth of tissue cells, accelerating the healing of cuts and burns. Some studies also show that it kills the Candida albicans fungus that causes vaginal yeast infections, while others suggest that (taken internally) it may help to reduce blood sugar and combat leukemia.

Aloe is easy and safe to use externally. To treat a wound, burn, rash, insect bite, or other skin ailment, cut a 2” section from an older, lower leaf, slice it lengthwise, and apply the gel directly to the cleansed skin, allowing it to dry. Wrap the used leaf and keep it in the fridge for later use. As a health drink, or in the treatment of ulcers and arthritis, some herbal practioners recommend the addition of up to four tablespoons a day of stabilized juice (purchased) to the morning’s fruit juice. Other herbalists say that its laxative properties mean that you shouldn’t take it internally. Aloe can also be used externally to treat animal skin problems, and some people add it to their pet’s food to improve arthritic conditions. ((If you experiment with it in this way, start slowly and watch your pet to be sure that it doesn't cause loose stools.) Aloe is an undemanding plant, and ideal for indoor growing. It enjoys rather poor soil, sunlight, and dry conditions (remember, it’s an African native). It multiplies by putting out offshoots, called "puppies," which you can repot for new plants for yourself or for friends.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com

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