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Aloe vera: grow it or buy it?

When planes stopped flying in September 2001, I couldn't get essential medication I'd been buying mail order. It brought home to me how much we depend on mass distribution. Now a houseplant raises the issue again.

With frost looming, I'm bringing indoors six pots of Aloe vera, trying to find window space for them (full sun or light shade). I've never seen this plant's fall spike of flowers, (yellow to orange to purplish) — probably because I don't give it enough sun. It has a shallow, spreading root system, and doesn't like much water, especially in winter; deep pots can result in root rot.

The fat, sword-shaped leaves have spiny margins and grow in a rosette: aloe is striking, especially when it gets two feet across. But I keep growing more because it's the best skin healer I know. Burns, bruises, cuts, rashes and sores, bites and stings, and especially winter dryness — all heal amazingly fast when I apply the colorless gel from the middle of the leaf. (Some people use the gel internally, but I'm not clear how safe that is.)

Cells just under the plant's hard skin produce a latex used for other medicinal purposes, but this yellow juice is much more likely than the colorless gel to provoke skin reactions. I often split a leaf through the gel, put the gel side on my skin, and cover it with a big bandaid overnight. Leaving the leaf skin on the outside keeps the gel together, and reduces mess. But recently, at the edges where the bandage presses the leaf skin to my skin, it irritates. I need to trim the edges so the gel extends farther out than leaf skin.

Five amaryllis need to come up from resting in the basement soon, if I want flowers this winter. How am I going to fit everything in? Can I get along with fewer aloe plants? Commercial preparations don't work as well as raw leaf (even if I could tolerate the chemicals).

Well, Hannaford supermarkets just started carrying Aloe vera leaves in the produce department. Huge ones: two feet long, 3 1/2 inches across at the base — and organically grown.

I use a lot of aloe; what if the store stops carrying it? Will enough people buy this new product to keep it coming? How much nutritional (or in this case medicinal) value does produce lose in transit? What is the real cost of getting it from afar?

Photo by C.H. Clark - one of my Aloes, and a leaf from the grocery store

Text and photos © Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 20 October 2006

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