The supremely useful aloe vera plant, aloe barbadensis, is one of the most commonly found members of the aloe plant family. Originating in Africa, today there are over 400 different species of aloe plant ranging from small pot plants to tall tree like specimens.
An easy to grow succulent that is renown for its medicinal, and in particular antiseptic, properties aloe vera plants have been cultivated for thousands of years. As well as being used to soothe burns and irritating skin, the juice from the plant can also be used as a soap, hair gel and conditioner or juiced into a healthy, detoxing drink.
The aloe vera plant is a striking addition to any home or garden.
A word of caution: aloe gel should not be consumed by pets. It should also not be consumed in large quantities raw, or without proper preparation, by humans. Doing so can cause nausea or indigestion. If consumed in large enough quantities it can also be toxic.
Characterised by its distinctive variegated leaves that fan out from the central stem aloe vera plants will happily thrive on a sunny windowsill in your kitchen. In warmer climates it can be grown as a year round outdoor plant, where its nectar will attract many birds including hummingbirds.
When you consider all the benefits that this little plant can bring it’s no wonder that so many people cultivate their own. Here is a complete guide to growing and harvesting your own aloe vera plant.
|Scientific name||Aloe barbadensis|
|Exposure||Full sun to partial shade|
|Hardiness||Tender, to around 28℉|
|Growth Zones||USDA 8-11|
|Soil type||Sandy, light, good drainage|
|Leaf||Green, green-grey, pointed|
|Flower||White to orange|
There are many different types of aloe vera plant. Some are easier to find than others.
Also known as Partridge Breasted Aloe (aloe variegata). This is a compact variety that has short, spikey leaves with distinctive white stripes.
The majestic spikes of the tiger aloe.
Blue aloe (aloe glauca) is a larger species. It is characterised by its silver blue leaves making it a particularly attractive addition to the home.
The stately flowers and coloured leaves of the blue aloe.
The lace variety (aloe aristata) is a small, compact variety. The leaves are patterned with white spots and are finely sawtoothed.
The distinctive patterned leaves of the lace aloe.
Caring For an Aloe Vera Plant
As long as you get a few basic things right your aloe vera plant will happily grow without too much need for you to interfere. Here is everything you need to know.
An aloe vera grown as a house plant will need as much light as possible. This will encourage good, healthy growth. If the plant doesn’t receive enough light it can become tall and leggy. A south west facing windowsill the ideal place for your plant. Here it will receive lots of lovely light.
Be careful when choosing the position, placing the plant in a directly west facing position may expose the plant to too much light. This can lead to the plant developing burnt leaves. If you want to place the aloe vera in a west facing position place it near the window, not directly in it. Alternatively hanging a sheer curtain or net curtain in the window will provide some protection for the plant.
If you’re worried that your chosen location is not light enough there are ways of providing artificial light. A grow lamp or normal standard lamp is a great way of boosting the amount of light your plant receives.
A sunny windowsill is the ideal location for your new plant.
In warmer climates your aloe vera can be grown outside. Choose a location that receives 2 to 3 hours of light every day. Again be careful not to expose the plant to too much direct sunlight. Growing the plant in a pot will enable you to take it inside, either into your home or a greenhouse, during the winter months.
If you choose to place the plant inside in the winter months don’t, when returning it outside, place it straight into direct sunlight. A plant that has spent the winter inside can be sensitive to direct sunlight. A sudden change in location can cause shock and damage such as leaf burn. Instead slowly acclimatise the plant by placing it in a semi-shaded spot for a few days.
Finally, when choosing a place for your plant try to avoid drafts. Aloe vera plants do best in temperatures between 50 and 80°F.
It is best to wait until the aloe vera has dried out completely before watering it again. This can be as little as once a fortnight even in the warm, summer months. During the winter the plant will require even less water. You may only need to water it once every two months.
While this may seem very little remember that aloe vera plants are succulents. This means that the leaves and roots of the plant can store huge amounts of water. Over watering the plant can lead to rot.
If you are unsure when to water, stick your finger into the soil. If it comes out dry then you can safely water the plant. A more scientific method is to use a soil moisture gauge.
When you do water the plant, stop watering as soon as water begins to drip from the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. If you are watering from the bottom up, don’t let the plant sit in water for a prolonged period of time because this can also cause root rot.
Many people like to use tap water that has been allowed to reach room temperature. This is because cold water can stress the plant and cause it to lose its leaves. If you are worried about the water in your taps, softened water in particular can be harmful to plants, then using a water purifier will give you peace of mind.
As is the case for most succulents, fertilisation is not necessary to produce a healthy plant. However an occasional boost will help the plants to grow during the spring and summer months.
A balanced liquid houseplant feed can be applied once a year, the best time to do this is in the spring just as new growth begins. A second application can be given in midsummer if you desire. Using a water soluble fertiliser, or applying the feed just before you water the plant, will help to prevent salt from building up in the soil. A buildup of salt can prove harmful to aloe vera plants.
Avoid using fertilisers that are high in phosphorus and those that claim to encourage flowering. These contain a high concentration of phosphorus, which can damage plants.
An organic plant fertiliser is a great option if you plan to harvest the plant and use the gel. A general purpose organic succulent plant fertiliser will be fine. Alternatively, if you already have a compost pile then a compost feeder, such as home made compost tea, will provide your plants with all the nutrients it needs.
If you are growing your aloe vera plant outside then you can also apply a layer of top dressing, such as worm castings. This should be a thin layer, no more than 1 inch thick.
Outdoor aloe vera plants can also be given a dose of either fish emulsion or liquid kelp. Both are natural liquid fertilizers but come with a strong aroma that you may not want to apply to your houseplants. If you do decide to use either of these feeds indoors then you may want to invest in an air purifier.
As when watering, if you are unsure how much to apply, remember less is more. Under feeding the plant won’t cause any long term damage and is easily rectified. Over feeding can be more difficult to rectify.
Well draining soil is vital for a healthy aloe vera plant. Special succulent soil is commercially available and will do the job just fine. A gritty succulent soil mix, which is also commercially available, will help to ensure that you don’t over water the plant.
If you would rather mix your own soil, a cheaper option than purchasing specialist soil, this is easily done. An even mix of perlite or pumice, sand and regular potting soil will produce a light and well draining soil that will make the ideal home for your aloe vera.
Planting and Repotting
Occasionally you will need to re-pot your aloe vera plants. This won’t be as often as other plants, because they enjoy cramped conditions.
The most common number of signs that a the plant has outgrown its pot are:
- rapidly drying out
- growth has slowed or ceased
- roots are protruding from the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot.
- the weight of the plant starts to tip the pot over.
To repot or pot a plant select a clean, fresh pot. The new pot should be the same size or slightly larger than the old pot. Don’t pot into a large pot immediately because this sudden change can send the plant into transplant shock and may cause wilt or leaf drop.
The pot that you select doesn’t have to be deeper than the previous pot but it should be wider, or just as wide. This is because aloe vera plants have a shallow, spreading root system. The pot should also have drainage holes in the bottom. If the pot hasn’t got any drainage holes it is a simple task to drill in a few yourself.
A drainage hole also eliminates the need for gravel, crocks or other drainage material to be placed at the bottom of the pot. This also means that there is more room for the roots of the plant to grow.
Many people like to use terracotta pots as they are porous. This helps the soil to dry out between waterings. However it is not necessary and a plastic or glazed pot will be just as good a home for your aloe vera.
A terracotta pot can help to prevent overwatering.
Remove your aloe vera plant from its old pot and brush away any soil that is clinging to the roots. Be careful not to damage the roots as you do this. This is also the time to remove any pups, or offsets, from the plant if you wish to propagate more plant. I will describe how to do this in the next section of the article.
If your plant has a spindly stem that is too long to fit in the pot some people will advise you to trim it down slightly. If you choose to do this simply cut off the undesirable part of the stem and place the plant in a warm area with lots of indirect light. The wound should callous over after a couple of days. Once it is calloused you can continue potting the plant. I will warn you that this can be a risky process and, if you are not careful, can kill the plant.
Place some soil or potting material in the fresh pot so that it is about a third full. Place your plant on the soil, the top of the root should sit just below the lip of the plant. You can add or remove soil until you are happy with the position of the plant.
A well draining medium will aid the growth of your succulent.
At this stage some people like to dust the stem of the plant with a rooting hormone powder. Doing so will encourage rooting and help the plant to settle in its new home. However this is not necessary.
When you are happy with the position of the aloe vera plant fill the remaining space in the pot with soil or potting mix. The bottom leaves of the aloe plant should rest just above the level of the soil. Leaving a gap of about an inch between the top of the soil and the lip of the pot will make watering easier and reduce overspill.
Unlike other plants you should not water the repotted aloe vera immediately. Instead return the plant to its normal position and ignore it for about a week. This allows the plant time to root and will decrease the chance of root rot. After a week water the plant as you normally would.
A low maintenance plant you will rarely need to prune your aloe vera plant. Simply remove any spent flower stalks and dead or damaged leaves to avoid mold or disease appearing.
When pruning or trimming is required don’t be tempted to use your blunt kitchen scissors, this can do more harm than good. Instead use either a bonsai pruning shears or a regular pruning shears. Either will allow you to make neat, precision cuts.
Flowering occurs in mature plants. Aloe vera’s grown inside are less likely to flower than those grown outside.
The flowers rise from an inflorescence which rises above the plants rosettes. In time these rosettes can be removed from the parent plant and grown as new plants.
While flowering is rare for indoor aloe vera plants, the aloe flowers are attractive, stately blooms.
To encourage flowering move the plant outside on warm, summer days. If no frost is expected the plant can remain out overnight. Make sure to bring it in at night as the temperatures fall again.
Alternatively placing the plant in a propagation chamber can help to maintain warmth and humidity levels and encourage flowering. If you don’t want to invest in one a homemade version is just as good and can be made from a plastic food container like these. An indoor humidity monitor or air quality monitor will help you to monitor humidity levels around your plant.
How to Cultivate and Propagate Your Own Aloe Vera Plant
By far the easiest and quickest way to get your own aloe vera plant is to purchase one from a garden center. However if you, or a friend, already has an aloe plant, then it is possible to grow it from either seed or by propagation.
Growing your own aloe vera plant from seed is a slow process but it is an affordable way of adding rarer or more exotic plants to your collection.
An aloe plant has to reach maturity before it will start to produce reliable seeds. This is normally four years of age however the age of maturity will vary between species, some won’t mature for almost a decade.
Once your aloe vera plant is in flower you will be able to harvest the seed.
How to Harvest Aloe Vera Seed
Wait until the aloe flower has faded and lost its petals, or become spent. You should then be able to notice the seed pods where the flower once was.
Seed pods forming on an aloe vera plant.
When the pods turn a brownish green colour they are ready to harvest. Inside each pod you will find the aloe seeds. The seeds will be small and flat. They will be grayish brown or black in colour. Lighter seeds, or white seeds are not ready to harvest and won’t germinate.
Empty the pods into a bowl or small basin. Discard the empty pod.
You can sow aloe seeds immediately or, if you are planting outside, keep them for a spring planting. Aloe vera seeds can be stored in a paper envelope in a cool and dark location. While they can be kept this way for a few years aloe seeds are more successful if sown within a year of harvesting.
How to Sow Aloe Vera Seeds
Generally, all though there are always exceptions, aloe vera seeds will germinate quickly and easily.
Aloe vera seeds should be sown into either a potting tray or some small, clean pots. In warmer climates the seeds can be sown straight outside but starting them off in a container or tray allows you to give the seeds extra protection and care.
Fill your container of choice with a 50-50 mix of peat and horticultural sand. This combination will provide sufficient drainage meaning that your seeds will not drown. Alternatively you can use a combination of sterile compost, perlite and sand. Again this is a well draining combination that is loose enough to allow your seed to flourish.
Lightly dampen the medium. Sow the seeds, leaving about a half inch gap between each seed. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of sand.
Keep the seeds moderately moist, and in a bright place. Temperatures should average 75F (23C). Placing the trays or seeds into a propagator chamber can help to maintain warmth and humidity levels. A homemade propagation chamber, made from a plastic food container like these, is just as effective as a commercial option. A heat mat can also be used.
The seedlings should be kept like this until their roots are properly developed and at least four leaves have properly emerged. During this period you can prevent the soil from drying out by misting it.
Depending on the species germination will take between 2 and 4 weeks.
Aloe germination can happen within a couple of weeks.
After 4 leaves have emerged the seedlings can be transferred into their own 2 inch pots. Again these pots should be clean. The pots can be planted with a mix of 3 parts organic material, 3 parts pumice and 1.5 parts coarse sand.
Once successfully transferred the seedlings can be grown on in the same manner as adult plants.
Propagating Aloe Vera Plants
Aloe vera plants are commonly propagated by division. As the plant has a high moisture content cuttings taken in the conventional manner rarely become viable plants. While the leaf may live for a few weeks it will eventually rot or shrivel.
To propagate by division you will need to remove offsets or pups from the plant.
Aloe vera pups emerge at the base of the plant. These baby plants can be removed from the mother plant and potted up, in the manner described above in the repotting section. In time these pups will grow into new plants.
In the pot your plants, pups, are growing alongside the parent plant.
When propagating I like to take more than one pup or cutting. This way even if one fails another should succeed.
Reducing the amount of light that the plant is accessing for a week before attempting division will slow down growth rates and metabolism. This increases the likelihood of a successful division.
Most people like to propagate their plants in late winter or early spring however aloe vera plants are fairly hardy so you should be able to do this at any time during the growing season. The best, and easiest, time to remove the pups it when you are repotting the plant.
Select pups that already have a few roots of their own, these have the best chance of succeeding. While some pups will easily pull away from the parent plant using a sharp knife, such as a pocket knife, will ensure a clean separation and reduce damage to both the pup and mother plant. If you are concerned about the sharpness of your knife a knife sharpener is a really useful tool to have in the kitchen.
Place the pup in a warm dimly lit room for a few days until the cut has callused. This is important, the callus prevents the new plant from rotting in the soil. Once the cut has dried you can plant the pup into its own pot. This pot should be slightly larger than the pup and filled with a gritty potting mix. Make a hole in the soil and insert the roots of the pup.
As with repotting, don’t water immediately. A gap of about two weeks will give the pup time to establish its roots. Place the pot in a bright, warm location where it can access lots of indirect light.
Outdoor Aloe Plant Transplanting
If you are growing the aloe vera plant outside divisions will require digging the entire plant up. To do this use a shovel to dig a circle around the plants root system. Lift the plant, using the shovel to prise it from the ground.
You may also need to use the shovel to remove the pups from the plant. You can plant the pups directly into the ground or into containers until they are larger.
Common Problems and How to Deal with Them
An easy to care for succulent, as long as your plant has good drainage and lots of light it will pose few problems.
A healthy aloe vera plant.
However sometimes affliction can strike, here are the most common problems to affect an aloe vera plant and how best to deal with them.
If your plant develops galling, warty bumps on its leaves this is probably caused by an infestation of the tiny eriophyid mite bug. If you take a magnifying glass to the afflicted leaf you may be able to spot them.The infestation may affect part of the leaf or the entire leaf.
While this won’t kill the plant but it doesn’t add to the aesthetic appeal.
Unlike other bugs this leaf distortion is not caused by tunnelling but by the injection of the mites saliva into the plant. The saliva of the eriophyid mite is a potent toxin. This causes leaf and plant cell structures to change.
The simplest method of dealing with this infestation is to cut away the infected leaves and discard them. Make sure that you use a clean, sharp instrument. Allow the cut to naturally callus over.
If more than a few leaves are affected apply an insecticide. This is best done in the spring as a root drench. This method allows the insecticide to be taken in systemically. Carbaryl, Dimethoate and Orthene can all control the infestation.
Mealybugs and houseplant scale can also attack aloe vera plants. Organic pest control methods such as applying neem oil, insecticidal soap or a horticultural oil spray can all deal with these infestations.
A word of caution. Aloe vera plants can be sensitive to certain sprays. Test anything that you plan on using on a small part of the leaf before applying to the whole plant.
Brown Leaves and Wilting
A wilting plant, or a browning of the leaves can be caused by a number of things. Both over watering and under watering a plant can cause brown leaves and wilting as can fungal disease, nutrient deficiency, too much salt in the soil, chemical exposure or sun scorch. Working out which is affecting your plant is a process of trial and error.
If you suspect that the issue is caused by over watering the simplest cure is to simply repot the plant into a clean pot. When you remove the plant from its old pot check the roots for any rot damage and remove any damaged roots.
From then on you should water the plant only when the soil feels dry to the touch. If you are unsure a simple method is to insert a finger into the soil. It should be dry to your second knuckle before you water.
In the winter months, reduce the amount of water that you apply by half.
Repotting the plant in fresh soil will also help to alleviate the effects of too much salt. Over fertilizing can cause excess salt buildup. This can burn the roots of the plant and brown the leaves. If you suspect this to be the case, and don’t want to repot the plant, you could first try leaching the soil. This can be an effective method of treating salt buildup.
Chemical exposure is most likely in outdoor plants that may receive herbicide drift. Indoor plants can occasionally be splashed with cleaning chemicals. If chemical exposure has occurred you will need to remove all the affected leaves and repot the plant in a clean, fresh location.
If you suspect that the plant is under watered this can be cured simply by increasing the frequency of watering. This is best done gradually, you don’t want to suddenly start over watering the plant.
If you suspect that your aloe vera is suffering from a nutrient deficiency, apply a general purpose feed or top dressing. A water soluble feed can be incorporated into your regular watering routine.
A fungal disease can be treated simply with an application of a fungicide.
Finally, browning of the leaves can also be caused by too much sun. If you suspect that your plant is sunburnt relocate the plant to a slightly shadier spot, or place a net curtain or similar in the window to offer some protection.
Drooping or Flat Leaves
Aloe vera leaves grow from the base of the plant upwards. Drooping leaves or leaves that lie flat are signs that more sunlight is needed. Occasionally rotating the pot also helps to encourage the leaves to grow upright.
A Tall and Thin Plant
This is another sign that the plant is not receiving enough light. Reposition the plant or add a grow light. If you can’t provide your plant with enough natural light then a regular light or lamp, or a special light lamp, can be used.
If your aloe vera is leaning or drooping it is usually an indication that the plant if not receiving enough direct sunlight. Repositioning the plant or use an artificial light to increase light levels.
If the light level seems fine then temperature may be the problem. Exposure to cold weather can also have this affect on aloe vera plants. Don’t let your aloe get colder than 50F (10C).
If the plant seems to be receiving plenty of light and heat the drooping may be a symptom of over watering. If caught early enough you will not need to repot the plant, simply allow the plant to completely dry out before watering again.
If the stem of your aloe vera plant becomes mushy this is a clear indication of overwatering. You will have to act quickly to save the plant. Take a sharp, clean knife and cut the stem above the mushy or rotted section and attempt propagation. Make sure that you cut away all the rot before propagating.
This is often caused by too much alkaline in the soil. Use a pH testing kit. If your soil has high levels of alkaline adding a bit of soil sulfur will cure the problem.
Overwatering, a lack of light, and over fertilizing can all cause slow growth.
Finally slow growth can also be caused by the plant becoming pot bound, or too big for its pot. If this is the case you will need to repot the plant.
Harvesting Your Aloe Vera Plant
As we have already observed the aloe vera plant has numerous health benefits associated with it. With this in mind to get the most out of your aloe vera you will probably want to know how to harvest it.
How to Harvest Aloe Vera
Wait until your plant is mature before picking the leaves, younger plants should be allowed to grow for a while first.
Don’t over harvest the plant, take as much as you need and no more. Picking as and when will help the plant to continue growing. Also try to harvest from the top of the plant down. Lower leaves are often smaller, focus instead on the larger, juicer leaves at the top of the plant.
When the tips of the leaves take on a rose tinge the leaf is ready to harvest. Choose an unblemished thick, smooth leaf. These are often the juiciest.
The juicy aloe vera leaf.
With a sharp, clean knife or secateurs cut the leaf as close to the trunk of the plant as possible. It may be tempting to hand pick the leaves but doing so can damage the tissue of the leaf and plant.
Preparing the Aloe Vera Leaf
If the juice in the cut leaf is just to treat a small burn or sore spot you can simply rub the cut, juicy part of the leaf on the afflicted patch of skin.
Sometimes you will want more aloe vera. To get at the aloe vera gel you will need to dissect the leaf.
Aloe leaves contain a yellowish sap called aloin. This can be bitter and some people may become ill if they consume it. Hold the harvested leaf cut end down, you will notice that the aloin runs or drips from the leaf. Draining the aloin will also stop the gel from tasting bitter. Once the aloin has drained you can prepare the leaf.
To do this wash the leaf and then place it on a flat surface. Cut the leaf lengthwise removing the serrated edges. Use a sharp knife, such as a pocket knife, to get clean cuts. This process is similar to filleting the skin on a fish.
Carefully remove the skin from the leaf. This process should also remove a yellow coloured layer leaving the clear or white translucent flesh exposed. You will then be able to scrape the gel-like juice from each half of the leaf with a small spoon.
Uses for Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel can be used to soothe irritated skin. It can also help ease sunburn, stings and bites. Regular application of aloe vera gel can also improve your complexion.
Additionally the gel or juice can be used as a hair conditioner. Or if you mix it half and half with water, and an essential oil of your choice you can use it as a leave-in hair conditioner. This is particularly good at controlling frizzy hair. Regularly using aloe vera gel on your hair can also minimise dandruff by balancing pH levels in the skin and encourage hair growth.
The distinctive foliage of the aloe vera plant.
Aloe vera plants are attractive houseplants that are easy to grow, happily thriving even if you neglect them. They are also an incredibly useful plant, helping to cure everything from cold sores to sunburn. Once you get the hang of growing an these useful little plants you’ll wonder how your home ever coped without it.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.