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All Hail the Efficacious Aloe

In some gardens where many different aloes are collected, there can be cross-pollination between species, creating a range of hybrids of unknown ancestry or name.

My relatives from back East fried in the desert sun here in Palm Springs, Calif., during a recent visit. Painful sunburns made one of the seven teenage visitors ask if I had any lotion with aloe.

"I can do a lot better than that!" I said. They watched in wonder as I harvested leaves of my dozen aloe species.

Among them is the famed Aloe vera, but the ferocious looking Aloe ferox, a huge spiny species is the major aloe gel producer in South Africa. We also experimented with Aloe eru, Aloe ciliata and Aloe bainsii.

The kids were fascinated. Soon they were rubbing oozing aloe slices over one another's blistered skin, experiencing for the first time truly efficacius herbal medicine.

Here in modern America, kids are more at home with circuits of a computer than the fertile earth, and yet we shared an age-old botanical ritual. It dates back to well before 1500 B.C., in the written medical material of all great ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides extolled the virtues of aloe as the most important of all remedies for skin ailments and burns. Now, millennia later, aloe remains the primary medicinal plant for skin care.

Aloes belong in the lily family, with hundreds of different species, most native to Africa, the Middle East and Madagascar. Each species varies in the degree of heat, drought and moisture it tolerates. In some gardens where many different aloes are collected, there can be cross-pollination between species, creating a range of hybrids of unknown ancestry or name.

Aloe plants produce a rosette of leaves that can vary in size and color with the species. Most types remain ground-hugging all their lives and produce offsets, which are sprouts that appear at the base of the stem or in conjunction with surface roots. Many aloes will spread out by means of offsets to completely pack a pot or develop a sizeable colony.

To propagate aloe, simply separate the offset with as much root material as possible from the mother plant. Place it in a pot of sand or cactus soil that is well drained so the offset is less subject to rotting. At the start, without roots, it has very little capacity to utilize soil water, surviving on what is stored in the succulent leaves. But proximity to soil and moisture with warm temperatures causes the offsets to strike roots very quickly.

Aloes bloom in spring and summer. They produce long stems that grow from spaces between the leaves. The size of the spike is quite large, with arborescent aloes like ferox producing multiple branching heads. Smaller aloes tend to produce single spikes or those that fork into two flower heads. You'll also find tiny aloes which bloom with just a single dainty spike topped with a cluster of blooms.

Virtually all aloe blossoms are attractive to hummingbirds, but since aloes are African plants they have evolved to be specifically pollinated by indigenous long-beak nectar-feeders of their homelands.

Most references both online and in books show very small aloe plants grown in pots or controlled environments. But you really don't get a sense of what the plant really looks like unless you see it in optimal conditions outdoors or in its natural habitat.
The Website Made-in-Africa offers a spectacular online gallery of really great photos of aloes at www.made-in-afrika.com/aloes. This no-nonsense site is operated by a South African couple who sell seeds of 30 different aloe species and hybrids along with a great deal of important cultural information.

If you have only ventured into the small world of Aloe vera, check out Made-in-Africa to find some really appealing new candidates for your house or garden. With each new plant you'll be stocking your own botanical medicine chest for nature's most beautiful remedy for most afflictions of the skin.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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