There are more than 250 species of aloes found throughout the world. All are semi-tropical succulent plants, and most are native to Africa. The true aloe vera plant, as most people know it, refers to the Aloe barbadensis Miller. It is best recognized for its medicinal purposes. When mature, the plant stands 2 to 3 feet tall, with long leaves measuring 3 inches across at the base. As a houseplant, aloe vera requires little care.
Succulent plants have the capacity to store water within layers of tissue in their thickened leaves, stems or roots as an adjustment to dry desert-like conditions. By storing water for use as needed, succulents can survive in habitats that are impossible for most other plants.
Aloe vera is an example of a leaf succulent. Water holding cells, covered by a thin layer of photosynthetic tissue, make up the greatest percent of its leaf structure.
Indoor Winter Care
If transplanting an aloe vera plant from the outdoors, choose a wide planter, rather than a deep one, since aloe vera has a shallow root system. Be sure the planter has a drainage hole, or place a 1- to 2-inch layer of fine stone in the bottom of the pot for adequate drainage. Use a high-quality commercial potting blend with extra perlite or coarse sand added for best drainage. A pre-packaged cacti mix soil is a good alternative. Place the potted plant near a window with plenty of sunshine. Over the winter months, the plant will become rather dormant and require very little moisture. During this period, watering should be nominal. Allow the soil to dry out entirely before pouring on a cup or two of water.
Aloe vera plants do best if allowed to spend their summer months outdoors. Be sure that all danger of frost has passed before moving your potted plant to a sunny location in the garden or on your patio. During the summer, the soil should be entirely drenched but then dried out again before re-watering. Fertilize annually, in the spring, with half-strength, commercial bloom-type fertilizer (10-40-10) that should be available at your local garden center.
Aloe Vera in the Sub-tropical Landscape
Since aloe vera plants consist of 95 percent water, they are particularly frost sensitive and may only be grown outdoors in areas where there is no risk of freezing in USDA hardiness zones 10 and 11. Place plants in full sun or light shade. The soil should be moderately fertile with some organic matter mixed in as well as coarse sand for quick drainage. Mature plants will tolerate drought quite readily, but for the well-being of the plant, water it occasionally. Older plants produce a tall stalk with bright coral-colored flowers whose nectar is a favorite food for hummingbirds.