Written by Cheryl Terry, exclusively for Aloe Barn
We’re having another beautiful California day watching the sun rise over the endless rows of giant aloe plants on the farm. The hummingbirds are making their rounds feeding on their favorite nectar from the bright yellow tubular blossoms. While they are partaking of natures original smoothie, I’m sipping my own aloe infused elixir. And, contemplating the long journey Aloe Barbadensis Miller has made from its native ancestral home in the warm dry climate of North Africa, to our sunny pacific shores, where it shares its many gifts with us.
Down through the ages, there have been special plants that have supported human survival as we evolved from agrarian settlements to advanced civilizations. The Aloe vera plant is one of those miracles from nature that has been known and used for centuries for its health, beauty, medicinal and skin care properties. The name Aloe vera is believed to be derived from the Arabic word “Alloeh” meaning “shining bitter substance,” while “vera” in Latin means true. Lets travel back in time and see just how long aloe vera has been with us on our evolutionary path.
Aloe made its first documented appearance on the world stage in 2200 B.C.E. during the reign of King Ashurbanipal, Cuneiform clay tablets from the Sumerian City, of Nippur, found at the end of the 19th century, by archaeologists who were experts in the Sumerian language, contained texts describing Sibaru, their name for the Aloe vera plant. One of the clay tablets located near what would have been the king’s private quarters in the palace, clearly stated “these leaves resemble knife sheaves.” Further explorations revealed that the Sumerians were well versed in the use of aloe for its purgative and digestive healing properties. Aloe vera gave the Sumerians a means to offset the toxic effects of consuming spoiled and stale food, which gave it a prominent place in their healing practices. Also, in terms of its relevance to modern archeobotany , it demonstrates the earliest use of the species of aloe known today as Aloe Barbadensis Miller.
Egyptians called Aloe “the plant of immortality.” The Ebers Papyrus, dated from 1552 B.C.E. documents 12 different formulas for mixing aloe with various agents to create internal and external remedies. Ailments the Egyptians treated with aloe include asthma, arthritis, eczema, parasites, lung diseases, veneral disease, wounds, infections, digestive disorders, hair loss, mouth ulcers, burns, heart disease, and the list goes on. Isis and Ra inspired magical immortality potions contained the highly prized aloe vera.
Its most important religious use was during the embalming process, where aloin was dissolved in water and combined with myrrh to preserve the body. In ancient Egypt, the funeral ceremony for a Pharaoh was attended by foreign heads of state and the wealthiest citizens at the Egyptian court. If you received one of these highly coveted invitations, you were expected to bring a gift of one pound of aloes. A mans wealth, status, and reverence for his king was measured by how many Aloes he gave in tribute. Traditionally, aloe was planted along the road to the Valley of the Kings and around the pyramid burial site so that it would accompany the pharaoh into the afterlife continuing to be a source of food and good health for all eternity. It was believed that when the aloe flowered, the king had successfully reached the other side.
The Greeks learned of the aloe vera plant through their many years of study in the ancient medical and mystery schools of Egypt. They took this knowledge back to their homeland, where they included aloe in their pharmacopia and documented its value in many healing modalities. The first recorded Western resource for disseminating knowledge and understanding of the aloe plant, ‘De Materia Medica’ was written by Greek physician, Dioscorides, AD 41-68. Dioscorides gained his immense knowledge and skill with using aloe while serving as the traveling physician to the Roman armies. He reported that the juices of the plant we know as Aloe vera had “the power of binding, of inducing sleep.” He further noted that it “loosens the belly, cleansing the stomach.” On the battlefield, Dioscorides employed the use of the whole pulverized leaf for rapid wound healing and to check hemorrhaging. He also identified the bitter aloe sap and juice as a treatment for boils, hemorrhoids, all mouth irritations including the tonsils and gums, and as a medicine for eye conditions.
In 600 B.C., Arab traders eager to create a demand for aloe vera along their trade routes, devised a way to separate the inner gel and sap from the rind by crushing the leaves with their bare feet. The process was completed by placing the pounded pulp mixture into goat skin bags where they were left to dry in the hot desert sun. Once all of the moisture was removed, the aloe was ground into a fine powder. This effective method of converting their ‘Desert Lily’ into an easily transportable product allowed them to introduce Aloe vera to Persia, India and the Far East. Thanks to modern technology, we have a more sanitary way of producing the same results.
In Persia, Aloe vera and hemp were revered for their medicinal powers. Renowned Persian doctor and philosopher Avicenna, initiated young apprentices into the Ishmaelite Sect through the doctrine of degrees. Magic powers were conferred to their adepts through the secrets of the “seven sabayahs” or “knowledge of the right road. They used aloe for kidney disease, as an antidote and an elixir for longevity.
Ancient Hindus derived their knowledge of aloe from the Rig Veda where it was recommended for use in reproductive disorders, liver disease and parasites. Like the Egyptians, aloe played a significant role in their religious rites . It was laid upon funeral pyres to ensure rebirth of the soul.
Chinese physicians believed so strongly in the therapeutic qualities of Aloe that they called it the ‘harmonic remedy’, liberally applying its juice topically as a cure for all skin rashes. According to an account of 8th Century poet, Lui Yu Xi, he was healed of a persistent eczema by a traveling herb seller. The prepared a mixture consisted of two thirds Aloe Vera and one third licorice. Traditional itinerant Chinese therapists or “barefoot doctors”, used the spines of Aloe ferox to perform acupuncture.
Aloe Vera Comes to the New World
By the 15th Century, the great European maritime powers began their famous expeditions and explorations to bring wealth from foreign lands back to their nations. Spain, France and Britain, most notably took the lead in expanding their global outreach into the “New World”. This massive explosion of discovery and acquisition, coupled with the slave trade brought aloe vera to the virgin shores of their new colonies. Spain was the most important promoter of aloe vera use in the new territories, because they had already been introduced to the healing plant by the Arabs and brought it with them for medicinal uses on their long voyages.
In 1494, during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to America, he received a letter from his doctor, Dr. Diego Alverez Chanca, stating that, “a species of aloes we doctors use is growing in Hispaniola (now known as the Dominican Republic).” It is further reported that Columbus who referred to Aloe vera as “the doctor in a pot”, once said, ”four vegetables are indispensable for the well being of man :Wheat, the grape, the olive and aloe. The first nourishes him, the second raises his spirit, the third brings him harmony, and the fourth cures him.” Even though the Spanish sailors aboard the Santa Maria suffered from malnutrition, scurvy and many other diseases, their lives were saved because they used the Aloe vera pulp, a fact which encouraged all the sailors to carry it on their ships as well. The Aloe vera plant had now found a new home. It was widely cultivated in the colonies by the Spanish Jesuit priests, eventually making its way to sunny southern California via the now famous missions system.
Two hundred years later, the Caribbean Island of Barbados, would be the historic location, where botanist and explorer Philip Miller, would discover and officially name the plant aloe barbadensis miller. Miller was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Through his many travels, he obtained plants from all over the world and is credited for introducing and cultivating many of these new specimens for the first time in England. Because of his vast knowledge of living plants, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society. Peter Collinson, one of Miller’s fellow botanists, wrote the following observations after visiting the famed gardens in July 1764,” Miller has raised the reputation of the Chelsea Garden so much that it excels all the gardens of Europe for its amazing variety of plants of all orders and classes and from all climates.” And so it is Philip Miller we have to thank for naming the most nutritious and healing variety of Aloe vera that is grown today.
Aloe Vera Today
Aloe vera has left an indelible mark everywhere it has gone in the world. Modern history records its use to heal radiation burns in post atomic bomb ravaged Japan and applications for HIV and Aids in current medical research. But it is Author, Carol Miller Kent, who brings us the first interstellar use of the plant. He claims in his book titled, “Aloe Vera” that a salve made of Aloe Vera for treating burns was part of the pharmaceuticals carried aboard the Apollo 11 space capsule which landed on the moon in 1969.
On a more personal note, its value to health conscious individuals in contemporary society is best expressed by Mahatma Ghandi, who wrote in a letter to his biographer Romain Rolland, “You ask me what were the secret forces which sustained me during my long fasts. Well, it was my unshakable faith in God, my simple and frugal life style, and the aloe, whose benefits I discovered upon my arrival in South Africa at the end of the 19th Century.” Like those who have come before us, we find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing miraculous journey with a plant that still shapes the well being of our evolving existence. Aloe Barn is proud to be a significant part of that ongoing history and is dedicated to providing the highest quality of Aloe Barbadensis Miller to all of our customers.
Bessetti,Allessandro and Sala, Stefano, The Great Aloe Book., aloelf.com, aloeria.co.uk / aloe_vera_history.html, aloe-vera-advice.com, herballegacy.com / Baldwin_History, wikipedia.org / wiki / Avicenna, wikipedia.org / philip miller, aloecuracao.com, aloeresearch.com