Aloe vera, meaning “true aloe” in Latin, is a versatile and rather mysterious plant. Although it is perhaps best known for its healing properties on (sun-)burned skin, it shows up as an ingredient in many skin and hair products for various therapeutic or cosmetic purposes. The plant’s frequent appearance in traditional medicine all over the world reinforces the belief that it may really possess some restorative power–but just how miraculous is aloe vera after all? Many users of aloe swear by its ability to fight everything from arthritis, stomach ulcers, and diabetes to tooth and gum decay, but despite these glowing reports, the plant has not gained widespread traction as the “miracle drug” some of its proponents claim it to be. Nevertheless, the really astonishing claims in some of these anecdotes, and aloe’s established healing powers in other spheres of health (skin, hair, etc.), could suggest that further scientific research into the plant’s healing properties would not be fruitless.
Why the introduction to aloe? Well, Aloe vera (most typically actually the plant Aloe barbadensis) can be found, along with a good many other herbs, all over the grounds of Xandari and especially in its herb garden. Thanks to Konrad, one of the excellent therapists at Xandari’s spa, Seth and I had a chance to get up close and personal with the spiny leaves of aloe. After learning the process from Konrad, Seth and I set out to the Mandala, Xandari’s herb garden, to go through the steps of harvesting and preparing it ourselves. (You may be asking why Xandari’s herb garden is called a “mandala,” which is a ritual symbol of contemplation and divinity in several Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. The garden is apparently so called both because of its spiritually soothing atmosphere and its intricate, circular arrangement. Click here for a picture showing this arrangement.) The first step is to remove one of the plant’s large, spiny leaves near the base:
When first removed, the injured leaf will secrete a foul yellow ichor, called latex, which is sometimes still used as an emetic or laxative. It is hypothesized that the yellow liquid, which smells a bit like strong, “off” chicken soup, is a further defensive barrier (after the spines) against marauding herbivores. The leaf is hung to allow all of the latex to drip away.
After draining, we snipped another half inch from the bottom and washed the dirt off that had been thrown onto the leaves by the recent rains. Here is a cross section of the fat leaf, showing the prized aloe gel in a solid block in the interior:
The spines are then stripped off the ends, leaving a little aloe “Oreo”:
It’s almost ready to be harvested. First, it has to be cut in half along its length:
Once split open, the two halves clearly reveal the gel adhering to the inside:
Finally, some kind of dull knife (to avoid cuts while slipping) is dragged along the interior surface of the leaf, removing the gel in clear sheets: (in our case this happened after washing the interior because we were working outside near the dirt)
This gel removed from the interior of the leaf is then free to be used in any number of ways. In our case, we blended a portion into a skin-cream base and used it as a balm for sunburns and insect bites. We retained some, however, for, er, more “edible” purposes. Seth took a bite of the gel (safe to consume) and reported a strong vegetable flavor. We retained more to blend with water, chan seeds, and simple syrup for a refreshing drink. (Correction: Seth did! I didn’t quite have a taste for it, though I can attest to the mildness of the drink.) Perhaps most exciting, however, was how we used the remainder of the gel left on the interior surface of the plant’s leaves. Inevitably, a small portion had been left after we sliced the majority off. We removed this remainder by scraping vigorously with our fingernails. Then, rubbing the liquid between one’s hands, the gel is whipped into a kind of foam. Finally, it is applied to the hair as an agent intended to thicken and restore growth. All in all, an exciting if strange experience which can be watched below:
Seth and I have not been inducted into the deeper mysteries of the aloe plant, but we can certainly attest to the effectiveness of the cream we made–and Seth assures me that we ought to add the aloe drink he whipped up to the Xandari menu sometime soon! If you’re interested in making your own aloe products, the plant is easily obtained, hardy, and should mature in sometime between 1.5 and 5 years, depending on the climate. Good luck!