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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.

My daughter gave me this amaryllis a year ago at Christmas. My sister enjoyed the blooms since I was sick and couldn’t get to her house where our family Christmas is held. So once I received the bulb I grew it in the vegetable garden, pulled it out in the middle of October and put it in a cool spot to rest. I pulled it out in January and here is the bloom in March. Thank you, Karen! This is the first of four blooms on the stem, so I have some more flowers to enjoy. The red flowers seem to be sparkled with glitter. It is gorgeous!

Once the blooms have faded, I’ll cut them off at the base of the bloom. The stem holds chlorophyll so will give the bulb some extra nutrition.

Red Amaryllis

Red Amaryllis Bloom

After a very long, bleak winter, this fiery bloom lightens my spirit. I’m going to replant it this spring once the frost date is past. After ten days on the porch for the leaves to acclimate to stronger light, I will take it out of the pot and grow it directly in the soil. Because it will already have a strong leaf system in place this year, the bulb should grow even larger. I plan to see it is better fertilized and watered this summer, too. If I want to try and have it bloom at Christmas, I’ll have to repot it and put it into its rest period by mid August. It needs to be kept for about eight to ten weeks in a dry and cool state of relative darkness. September really works better to start the rest period, and October after the first frost seems to be best. I’ll have to wait and see how well it has grown by August and decide then. I don’t mind seeing the bloom in March. The U.S. National Arboretum says this process can be repeated indefinitely. I’ve had amaryllis before, but after a few years they didn’t grow well; however, this could have been me not giving them enough attention.

My remaining Clivia miniata's  2011 blooms.

My remaining Clivia miniata 2011 blooms.

Browsing a White Flower Farm catalog fifteen years ago I saw a plant I wanted: Clivia miniata, or more commonly called either the kaffir or natal lily. The plant’s photograph showed a cluster of eight or more bright orange flowers in an umbel. It was impressive. It was expensive. I asked for it for a Christmas present, but that just didn’t happen. The next year when the fall catalog arrived, I again mentioned how much I wanted one, but decided not to leave it to chance. I bought one for thirty dollars, and then forgot about my order.

Coming home from work one day I found a box on my porch from White Flower Farm. Remembering my order, I rushed inside and pulled out the plant. It wasn’t blooming and a bunch of strappy dark green leaves weren’t very inspiring. Still, the catalog had claimed it would be a five-year-old plant of blooming size. I just needed to wait for the flowers. Wonderful!

Next day coming home from work, I found another box from the nursery on the porch. Puzzled, I took it indoors and opened it and pulled out two Clivia plants. Unknown to me, some guilty un-gifter had ordered the previous unfulfilled Christmas wish by two. I had eighty dollars worth of Clivia (cheaper when two are purchased); in other words, an embarrassment of riches.

At the time I laughed, but now know they were worth the price. Mine grew and bloomed, and continued to grow larger and bloom more magnificently every year. Unlike some blooming plants, their care was easy. Clivia come from South Africa, growing in damp winter forests. Because our winter is their summer, they bloom in late winter or early spring here, seemingly keeping their own timetable.

It’s hard to kill a Clivia. The plants survive overwatering, they survive under watering. They enjoy the summer outdoors in a shady location, and when fall frosts arrive, I put mine indoors in a cool, dark corner. The dark, cold, and a bit of drought bring them into bloom. Usually in late January green flower heads begin to emerge from within the leaves to slowly develop into their orange glory and then last several weeks. They love their roots crowded in their pot and I only transplant mine when the roots literally break the pot — even plastic ones. I fertilize them beginning in August and continue until I bring them indoors. After they bloom they sometimes develop seeds, particularly if a budding botanist child pollinates them. I have raised some from seed and they take five years to reach blooming size. I’m now down to one plant, but it will need dividing and repotting this coming spring. I’ve given away two of the originals and two that I grew, but I won’t be giving more away any time soon as I need to build up my collection. I gave away one for the promise of a yellow cultivar. The trade unhappily never happened.

One other thing I forgot to mention. Every so often Clivia will bloom again in August. How great is that?

Also posted on sevennightwriters.blogspot.com

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