From the Zambezi Traveller online article archive.
The healing powers of Aloes
By Evelyn Roe, Photographs by Helen Pickering
History records the importance of aloe plants: Alexander the Great conquered the island of Socotra for its extensive Aloe vera plantations; according to the Bible, the body of Jesus was wrapped in aloe leaves when removed from the cross; and the victims of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were successfully treated for radiation burns with aloe leaf gel.
Aloe plants have succulent leaves made of two main parts: the green outer rind, which contains vessels that release a bitter yellow latex when cut; and the inner colourless pulp, which can be removed like a fillet to prepare aloe leaf gel from the liquid inside the cells. The latex contains aloin, a powerful laxative, whereas the watery gel consists of a wide range of compounds that assist in healing damaged skin and internal membranes, and in balancing the immune system.
Centuries of anecdotal evidence support Aloe vera’s therapeutic properties, which scientists have long sought to understand in terms of individual chemical components. Recent research shows that the effectiveness of aloe gel comes from the synergistic action of many types of molecules, rather than a single compound, and its anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic (and many other) properties have been verified, if not fully understood.
Zambia has 21 of the world's 400 or so aloe species, six of which occur in Southern Province: Aloe excelsa (also known as Zimbabwe aloe), is found in this country in only one locality in Kafue Gorge and is therefore listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in Zambia's Red Data List. The others are A. chabaudii, A. christianii, A. cryptopoda, A. greatheadii, and A. zebrina.
Local uses include adding aloe gel to chickens' drinking water to treat a range of diseases, and dipping poultry in a leaf infusion to discourage parasites. The nectar-filled flowers are edible and can be dried and pressed into cakes.
I often harvest gel from A. chabaudii to treat dry or sunburned skin, and perhaps other local species could be used beneficially, but do not ingest aloe gel unless it has been tested for safe internal use.
More articles in this series:
Rainforest Riches (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
Berry banquet (ZT, Issue 12, March 2013)
Marvellous Mangoes (ZT, Issue 11, December 2012)
Underground Forests (ZT, Issue 10, September 2012)
The healing powers of Aloes (ZT, Issue 09, June 2012)
Dogbane Drugs (ZT, Issue 08, March 2012)
Devil’s Claw (ZT, Issue 07, December 2011)
Elephant Toothpicks (ZT, Issue 06, Sept 2011)