Aloe vera is probably my top favorite medicinal plant I grow. I use it in lotions and for burns. I do not know a better sunburn remedy; it's even better than the gel you buy in the store. I have probably 8 plants, with two that need separated. I grew to love aloe from my grandmother; she always kept a small aloe plant in the windowsill of her kitchen. Whenever there was a kitchen or sunburn, she cut off a leaf, squeezed out the sap, and slathered aloe sap on the burn.
I have since learned much more about aloe, and that there are two different varieties of medicinal aloe. (Also know that there are more varieties of aloe than just aloe vera; I accidentally bought a blue dwarf aloe once, not realizing it wasn't an aloe vera. Be sure you are buying a medicinal aloe vera!) I have both aloe vera varieties in my garden. Why do you need to know the difference? Because the way you cut them to get the gel out is different.
This is a large aloe vera. If it has a different scientific name, I don't know it. It's leaves are thick and dark green (mine are slightly yellow 'cause I left them out in the rain; most aloes only need watered twice a year). The darker color comes from a yellowish juice that grows only in the skin of the leaf; it can be a skin irritant! (We found out the hard way.) The leaves also tend to whorl around, growing in every direction. If you plan to use aloe in lotions or something that requires 1/4 C or more at one time, this plant will serve you better. However, the leaves are usually too large for average home use.
This is a small aloe vera. It's leaves are much smaller. The leaves are light green with small whitish spots; they do not contain nearly as much of the yellow skin pigment, if any. The leaves also grow in only two directions. Small aloe vera do not provide quite as much gel per leaf, but they are easy to propagate (I'll explain how below). These are usually adequate for light home use, unless you're like me and have a ton of plants. My grandma always had this kind.
Now that you know the difference, let me explain the difference in preparing the two. Since small aloe vera has negligible yellow pigment (skin irritant), it can be cut off the plant and then you can squeeze down the leaf until clear sap starts dripping out. Or, for larger leaves from the small aloe, you can cut them using cutting method 1.
Since large aloe vera has a lot of the yellow juice in the skin, do not ever simply cut the leaf off and apply to the skin. I did this to my daughter when she had a sunburn once, not knowing the difference between the two varieties. Her skin turned ended up with a rash and sunburn at the same time. A little research later, and I realized you have to cut the skin of a large aloe leaf off, and rinse off any residual yellow juice. So, they are more work. Which is why I personally don't suggest them unless you plan on using copious amounts within a weeks worth of time or in something like lotion. You can help preserve your aloe gel/juice by adding vit. C or vit. E and keeping it refrigerated. I use crushed vit. C tablets.
For either variety, you need to cut the leaf from the plant. If you plan to use the whole leaf, cut about an inch from the base of the leaf. I cut this one a little lower than I normally would; you don't want the plants open wound to come in contact with the soil, 'cause that can allow diseases to enter the plant. The place where you made the cut will shrivel down, and about a week later your plant is fine. If you only need a tiny amount, you can cut the leaf higher, leaving the lower portion to grow until you use it later.
This is a cross-section of the leaf. Both varieties of aloe leaves are similar in shape. Notice that one side is curved and the other relatively flat. Also, you can see the beautiful clear inner portion. That is the healing portion.
Cutting Method #1:
This method works best for small or medium leaves. Cut the skin from the flat side of the leaf. (I'm hoping you can see that in this picture.)
Next, use a spoon to scoop out the inside clear portion. Gently rinse the clear gel if you see any yellow on it. After this, mash it or puree it; I find it's easier to apply that way.
Cutting Method #2:
This method works best for medium and large leaves, especially from the large aloe plant, as it removes the aloes skin without getting much of any yellow juice in with the clear gel. First off, I cut the leaf into 1" or 2" segments. I've just found the smaller segments easier to work with. Then, cut the skin from the curved side of the leaf, as pictured. It usually takes at least 3 cuts: one on each side, and one down the middle. Wider leaves need more cuts. The goal here is to remove the skin and green veins while preserving the clear gel, so the cuts should be shallow. Rinse after this part, as there can be some residual yellow juice.
Next, lay the leaf segment with the skin down. Gently work your knife along the bottom layer of skin, removing the top clear gel. You shouldn't have to wash it again after this, but you can if you want.
Here's your end product. You can see a few light green veins; that's not enough to cause irritation, so don't stress over it. Next, mash it, puree it, whatever. (note: I used a leaf from a small aloe plant to show these two cutting methods, 'cause I didn't want to waste a large one. The hunk of clear gel from a large leaf is much much larger, making the cutting worth it.)
So, yeah. I chop up my aloe, run it through a blender with some vitamin C powder, and I add it to my lotions or keep it in the fridge during the summer. Aloe vera is great at healing wounds, burns, and repairing damaged skin. I'm not sure about putting it on open wounds though; it would probably sting like the dickens. I have heard you can eat aloe gel, but I don't know if you have to boil it or anything. So, I am only recommending it for topical use.
Extra snippet - Propagating Aloe Vera
This is one of my small aloes that need separated. You can see lots of little shoot offs. What I'll do with this is let it dry in the sun for about 2 weeks (might be hard with all the rain we're getting, but it will be ok). After two weeks, I'll gently take the plant out of the pot by tipping it upside down and holding the leaves at the base. I shake off as much soil as I can (trying to keep it in the pot or other container). Then, very very gently I look for shoots that are big enough to have their own small root. I wish I had a picture, but these are too wet to separate now. If I break any above the root, I just put the leaves aside to keep in the fridge for a few days until I get a burn or something. As many as I can separate with the leaves and roots (at least 1" of root) intact, I repot in another container. I've done this before, and it works great. The plants grow really well. For large aloe plants, I've heard that you can take cuttings. I have never done this and don't know how to go about it, so you're on your own.
I hope for my next post to explain how I make lotion using the aloe gel!
15 hours ago