Aloe vera is a very common houseplant, found on most kitchen sinks because of its healing properties. I bought mine many years ago as a rather spindly young plant suffering from over-watering and lack of good light. It has developed into a sturdy plant with lots of little pup plants sprouting from its base that I replanted into separate containers every few years.

I once took them to a plant sale, but no one wanted any.  How could that be? Did everyone already have one, or did they not know how valuable this plant was?

Photo Aloe vera

Known and used for its healing properties, it is an easy topical ointment for small burns, cuts, and scrapes. It is a simple matter to snip off a leaf, slit it lengthwise, and rub the gooey gel inside the leaves over the wound. What does this gel contain? The University of Maryland Medical Center posts that “Although aloe is 99 percent water, aloe gel also contains substances known as glycoproteins and polysaccharides. Glycoproteins speed the healing process by stopping pain and inflammation while polysaccharides stimulate skin growth and repair. These substances may also stimulate the immune system.”

Over-the-counter skin and hair preparations also flaunt Aloe as an ingredient that reduces wrinkles and helps tame dry hair. On the Internet you can find Aloe vera drinks, the creators making many health claims for their product. Unfortunately, the consumer seldom knows how much Aloe the product contains. It might be as little as a drop or two, and consuming Aloe vera can create problems. But how effective is it, or are the claims just hype? So far the research has been inconclusive on many of the claims made for Aloe vera except as a topical ointment for skin irritation where there is evidence it helps skin injuries heal. Some people are allergic to the gel and in those cases it might cause more harm than cure. However, research continues on its affects to alleviate type 2 diabetes and certain liver diseases.

Most Aloe species come from Africa, but since prehistoric times, its reputation for healing has made it an important crop, spreading it throughout the Mid-East where it received its commonly known name, which is also its botanical name. Aloe is derived from an Arabic word for bitter, while vera is Latin for truth.

Commercially grown in Texas, Florida, and Mexico, it is not surprising that much of the research is done at Texas A&M University. While Aloe are succulent plants and have sharp points along the edges of old leaves which makes them look somewhat like cactus, they plants is in the lily family. Many sources claim Aloe has been associated with healing for over 4,000 years, although I don’t know who kept those records!

The FDA does not regulate labeling on Aloe vera products as it is considered a food, although I don’t suggest sautéing Aloe leaves for dinner. It is like sipping bitter mucilage glue. The health drinks have many other ingredients to tame and conceal the Aloe’s bad taste.

There is also a chemical product called aloin derived from the green part of the leaf. It has historically been used as a laxative, but now is used mostly for animals, as its side effects can be very unpleasant cramping.

Beyond its use as a burn and skin ointment, and when not constantly plucked for medicinal applications, Aloe vera develops into an attractive plant with an interesting leaf structure. It is an undemanding plant, liking bright light and well-drained soil. If the leaves turn reddish it probably needs fertilizing; yellow leaves indicate too much water. Its gray-green leaves can grow to eighteen inches in length, producing a very impressive plant. The leaf spines also become more exaggerated with age, and while not as sharp or potentially dangerous as cactus spines, they can catch on cloth and cause small scratches. That’s okay. Just cut off a lower leaf and spread the gel over the injury.

photo of plant's complex societies

Complex societies

Since 2000, scientists, and in particular botanists, have been delving into the sentience of plants. They’ve made some amazing discoveries. Plants are not the insensate lifeforms Homo sapiens has believed for so long.

Most people, in the past and still today, think of plants as living, but sedentary things that just grew and either thrived or didn’t, but which provided humans food, medicine, and clothing. People presumed they lacked the ‘anima’ or movement and cunning of the upper echelon of life forms, animals, of which we humans, with our self-awareness and intelligence, dominate all other creatures and even the planet Earth. At least, again, that is what many think. We are now learning that we can change the Earth, but it isn’t always a smart thing to do, and that plants and ‘lower’ lifeforms might not be so much lower, and even in someways, smarter.

In reading a 2015 publication, Brilliant Green, The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Ismarty-plants’ve learned philosophers since before Aristotle have wondered and postulated about plants, and whether they have souls, a sign of intelligence. Even Darwin and his son had views on plant intelligence which seemed to have been largely ignored. The authors of this book go on to describe plants’ ability to communicate, to remember, and to feel, see, hear, taste, and touch.

Programs like Nature on PBS are also creating shows like “What Plants Talk About,” (also known as “Smarty Plants” in Canada) which cover the discoveries about the ignored nature of plants. On Ted Talks, Stefano Mancuso  speaks on “The roots of plant intelligence,” and The New Yorker’s video “Do Bean Plants Show Intelligence,” based on the research of Michael Pollen, show scientists’ perceptions of plants are changing. Many videos are available on line to show the extraordinary discoveries about plant behaviors.

I’m sure most readers know that plants can survive without humans, but most ‘higher’ life forms cannot survive without plants and their ability to use sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and minerals found in the soil to produce sugars and other food substances. Depending on the species, they can live one season or for thousands of years. They clean air, water, and the soil that humans pollute. As mentioned, they take carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into the air. What we often don’t know is they live in complex societies both above and below the soil, and when we decimate a forest for wood products, we can also decimate the society of entities that made the forest a healthy and productive ecosystem in the first place.

It is time for humans to stop taking plants, and other life-forms for granted and to use the products and life forms on Earth in a responsible way. Our existence depends on it.

Last year in May (2015) Dr. John P. Holdren, who advises President Obama on science and technology, announced new steps to increase the population of insects that help pollinate our food crops. According to Holdren in his release “Announcing New Steps to Promote Pollinator Health,” these insects have helped  add “more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops.” The article announced three goals:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration; and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

So while our chemical companies have been developing poisons to kill predatory insects, there is a possibility they have also decimated insects important to our well being, and now with a population topping 7 billion people on Earth, we need all the help we can get to feed them all. There are other contributing causes to pollinator decline, and one is we have changed the landscape so it doesn’t provide what they need to survive. These, of course, our suppositions on my part since I haven’t followed all of the research.

However, when my package came from Burpee with my seed purchases, included was a free packet of Pollinators  Seed Mix. It included cornflowers, flax, cosmos, poppy, larkspur, zinnias, and sunflowers. Because I have been concerned about the decline in honeybees—I have witnessed it in my garden—I decided to plant them, giving a 4×4′ vegetable bed over to the seeds. Of all the disasters in my vegetable garden this year, the pollinators shined in success. Yes; I saw many insects on the flowers, including honeybees. But a Monarch also visited. To help these butterflies I also let the wild milkweed grow, although I’ve noticed they really like my butterflyweed (another species of milkweed) better.


Why bring this up? To let you know these seed packets are available for sale now in various plant combinations, including herbal. I took this photo last Thursday, so you can see the plants are still blooming. I’ve used some for bouquets for indoors, too (not a lot, I left most for the insects!) Please grow some. Lets keep the honeybees and Monarch butterflies around.

Oops! Posted and then added more. Here are Holdren’s sites for more information on the new policy copied from the site:

  • Read the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health HERE
  • Read the Pollinator Research Action Plan HERE
  • Read Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Lands HERE
  • Access Appendices to the National Strategy HERE

Gardening is always an adventure and an investigation into the plant world and nature. This year’s vegetable garden has been very different and not very successful. In a word, the cause is DEER, and my garden is not the only one attacked this year. I’ve spoken with several other gardeners whose crops have been decimated by deer. It could be the increase in corn fields around us, which provide also provide food.

Last week we repaired some fencing and put up more fence posts. Yet, this year the grapes have been very successful and weighed down sections of the fence. No matter what Bill and I did, the deer jumped the fence at some point in the perimeter and dined at leisure in the garden beds. The results are the tomatoes have well-cropped tops, and are developing tomatoes on the bottom branches.

Pumpkin blossomYesterday, the deer again jumped the fence and this time ate all the ripening grapes. ALL the grapes of an abundant crop off three vines. So much for making homemade wine. Deer also like Jerusalem artichokes,  horseradish, Swiss chard, beans, and sunflowers. All gone. However, the yellow crookneck squash are huge and abundant as are the pumpkins. On the back deck Bill finally put the lettuce containers on the small table and the raccoons he insists on feeding haven’t been able to get into them.

My flower gardens have done well except for the fact I haven’t kept them as well weeded as they needed to be. Four years after planting the seeds, the white Liatris Florestan White, or Blazing Star, finally bloomed, including one hidden one that I thought had died. I love raising plants from seed and I thought this one a lost cause, and here the plants finally deliver flowers! Deer did eat many of the daylily blooms, but I had daylilies blooming from the end of June to the end of August.  With my vegetable seeds from both Burpee’s and Park’s, I received free packets of ‘pollinators.’ They are blooming in the vegetable garden now and are beautiful.

I also read about using banana peels on plants for fertilizer and implemented the trial. It worked on the tomatoes (although this effort was largely a lost cause) and on the few roses I have. Just wrap the banana peel around the base of the stem. Recycling and fertilizing in one step–how convenient!

While the vegetable garden has been disappointing, it has been an interesting season of gardening. Since I’ve been very busy indoors working on creating an  online course for my classes, painting the walls, woodwork, floors (I truly have a painted house), and writing, most of my gardening has been a few sessions of weeding and much looking. Now I look forward to a fruitful fall hunting season for some hunter, and next spring, new fencing, and another table for the back deck, it should be a good gardening season.

After my post about Gardeners and God Complex, I’ve reaped some bad karma for my presumption.

First, all the seeds I planted when the soil first became workable died or were eaten by birds or insects.

Second, a drought has followed the cold spell that followed the warm spell that let me plant early.

Third, the peas came up but languish in the heat.

Fourth, deer jumped the fence and ate all the new pepper plants I had grown from seeds and just planted, along with the leaves of the Jerusalem artichoke, the asparagus (although we had a great harvest of asparagus), and the parsley that has gone wild in the garden. The deer did not touch the eggplants or tomatoes. Bought and planted more peppers, two of which have disappeared.

Fifth, within a day of  the cucumber seedlings breaking ground, they disappeared, as happened to the beets, parsnips and turnips. And something is eating the young squash plants. Moles? Birds? Insects? Grasshoppers?

Sixth, I planted a bed with beans, but now see I’d planted it with sunflowers too. It will be war of the world all over again.

Seventh, a special someone (not giving away names!) wanting to be helpful tilled the walkways between the beds so my feet sink into loose sandy soil whenever I walk the garden.

So, grrr, I didn’t take into consideration all the things not necessarily under my control. I’m hoping its not too late to plant more crops. What else can happen?

Two good aspects: the grapes seem to have abundant fruit developing for the first time. (I really need to learn how to prune those vines, and I’m sure the Baltimore Oriole nesting nearby will enjoy them as they did the Juneberries!)  Yet the rhubarb is doing tremendous and the ancient apple trees have fruit developing.

At my garden club’s flower show last Friday, my 22 year old Mammillaria elongata cactus took the Award of Merit (orange ribbon) in the houseplants class of the horticulture section. Yeah! (Except there were some very worthy entries just as deserving!)

Cactus winner


Take a section of land, perhaps put a fence around it to protect it from predators, tear off all the existing vegetation, prepare the soil, and plant what you want to grow: that can be either a farm field or a garden, a human creation. Both farmers and gardeners create gardens by imposing their will on nature. The gardener chooses the location, chooses the plants allowed to live and grow, and what plants (weeds) to pull and let die. A gardener creates a world in a garden. Does that give a gardener some type of God complex?

Gardens are hard work and take continued effort. If the gardener doesn’t keep up their garden, the natural world, believed to have been created by the real God, takes over. Local nature reclaims its property very quickly, making this world-building ephemeral. So why garden?

Certainly gardeners create gardens for food. Even with the cost of seeds, plants, fertilizer or organic materials to incorporate into the soil, watering, and the effort of all the work, a gardener can produce enough vegetables to feed their family through the winter for less cost than the grocery story. There is also satisfaction in this production of food, and the taste is usually far superior to any bought vegetable. The gardener knows what chemicals have been used on the produce which is often not the case with purchased produce.

Other benefits come with gardening beyond growing the family food. The creation of flower gardens and landscaping offer the chance to be creative, to mix the colors and textures of plants into vistas of extraordinary beauty. They offer the opportunity to inspect the beauty of plants up close, and discover the differences of each species. Wonderful flowering scents can permeate gardens. Gardening activities and plant selections can be very successful; some are failures, so gardening teaches the gardener about nature, about ecosystems, and the extensive world of plants, which leads to a greater appreciation for nature. This can lead to explorations of chemistry, weather patterns, and biology, adding a greater understanding of life.

Gardens are peaceful. They can give the gardener moments of single minded, thoughtless work, relaxing an over wrought mind. Just as often, gardening gives the gardener the ability to expand their personal thoughts. Either way can be very calming. Flowers, branches, leaves, and vegetables brought inside and made into an arrangement can bring the outdoors in, bringing the same beauty and peace found in a garden to a room

The successful efforts gone into making a garden give not only the gardener but also others something to enjoy. Having a visitor appreciate a garden brings the gardener another reward. Yet, just standing in the middle of a garden can bring a special contentment. Another benefit–good landscape increases property values.

Gardens tell time, give the seasons a distinct joy. Each season has its special jobs, its special plants and blooms. The joy of the first daffodils, to the ending summer’s chrysanthemums bring unique happiness, and a warning of how fast time passes.

Yet most gardens are doomed. Sometimes it’s temporary, like in Michigan where each winter the garden goes dormant, often providing an entirely different beauty. Ultimately, though, when the gardener is gone, usually so is the garden. So, gardens bring a sense of mortality providing the gardener the wisdom to enjoy each day; so not quite God, but a God-like experience.

All these reasons and more are why I garden.

Here it is, six weeks later, and some seedlings have s-l-o-w-l-y begun to sprout. The spinach has been up about a week and a half and is only now putting out second leaves. This past week some carrot and kohlrabi sprouts began to show.  At least this give me some hope for the seeds remaining underground—they might spout yet. So okay, up here in north central western Michigan, you can plant as soon as the ground can be worked, but the results, like the weather, might be mixed.Six wees to sprout? Really? Kale, a very cold tolerant plant has shown no signs of germination, neither have the beets, radishes, or Swiss chard. It might work out better for me to plant some of these in late August and grow them through the fall, and just wait until about now to put other seeds in the ground. On the other hand, the annual seeds of camomile and parsley are all over the garden! They have literally turned wild and are competing with the Veronica peregrina, in other words they’ve joined the weed community. I don’t really want to pull any of them out. Perhaps the veronica would make a good ground cover on the walkways between the growing boxes? Gardening is an adventure and an experiment!

My daffodils. scilla siberica, and hyacinth  are all blooming, and in the wild, so are the Amelanchier trees, so I can state spring is well underway here. Doesn’t mean we won’t have more snow! However, the blueberry plants from White Flower Farm arrived last Friday and I planted them Sunday. Hope they survive.

Well, I’ve checked the planted bed. Nothing has popped out of the soil. While the soil remains workable, the weather has not. My location has been hit by several snow storms and very cold temperatures. I know when seedlings wither, they are gone quickly and probably invisible on my soil. So have some sprouted and died, or has nothing come up? Will the seeds remain viable until the weather goes from freezing to cold? Is it just the unexpected swings between seasonable and unseasonable weather this spring?  I expect to know if I have to buy more seeds in another week or so. Perhaps the ‘workable soil’ soil timeline is different in Northern Michigan than in Southern Michigan or further south. Certainly an experiment, but at least I’ll know  one way or another.

Yesterday morning.

Yesterday morning.

I planted some cold crops two Saturdays ago and another group one Saturday ago. As of last Wednesday, nothing had sprouted. Well, the plants in the indoor biodome have. Two types of tomatoes, eggplants, amaranth, and Penstemon ‘Rocky Mountain’ have come up. I’ve tried the Penstemon outdoors two years in a row with no luck, so at least I should hopefully have plants to put in the ground this year. Nothing else up in the vegetable garden except the carrots left over from last summer, and the garlic is coming up.

Thursday a long lasting snow-sleet storm hit the state, and even the community college where I teach was closed. The snow continued on into April Fool’s Day. It was very cold, but today (Saturday) is in the 50s. Most of the plants emerging from the soil remained impervious to the weather. I have twigs and branches to pick up and lots of last year’s stems to remove from the flower garden, and weeds emerging, so work is already lining up. But no emerging crops. Maybe that is a good thing.

Time will tell, but it started the season off early, and looks to be a different season. Looking forward to spring. Snowdrops and a few crocus are already up and blooming, and daffodils have leaves emerging from ground.

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