Most botanists agree, and historical evidence suggests, that the Aloe Vera plant originated in the warm, dry climates of Africa. However, because the plant is readily adaptable, and because man has been so eager to carry it with him from place to place, it now can be found in many warm lands. In the United States, it is grown commercially in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, in California and Florida, and in specially-designed greenhouses in Oklahoma.
Although Aloe Vera is a tropical plant, the root can survive freezing air temperatures, so long as the ground is not frozen and the root destroyed. (When this took place in the Rio Grande Valley in the winter of 1983-84, ninety-six percent of the local crop was lost.) The plant need not be destroyed for damage to occur. The leaves may be damaged and vital nutrients may be lost at air temperatures of forty degrees Fahrenheit. Such damage may be severe at thirty-five degrees. Conversely, the plant can grow at temperatures as great as 104 F. It will survive temperatures higher still, and can withstand even severe drought. Nonetheless, it will thrive in humid jungles, so long as the root itself does not stand in water and drown.
At present, Aloe Vera has little official standing in the medical community. In spite of the lack of official promotion, it is among the most widely used substances in the U.S. for the treatment of burns and bruises. Additionally, it is used in a plethora of cosmetics, and consumed as a healthful drink. While it has not yet won the full endorsement of the medical community, serious examination continues. This study is far more serious, with many greater implications than most people realize. In a later chapter, we will explore some of the serious medical research performed with Aloe Vera this century. For the moment, it may be taken as an indication of the serious nature of such a study that the FDA has approved development aimed at the eventual use of Aloe Vera in the treatment of cancer and AIDS! More and more, attention is turning to Aloe’s unexamined possibilities as a powerful healing agent.
As we noted in the introduction–everything old is new again. The virtues of the plant have been recorded by many great civilizations, from those of Persia and Egypt in the Middle East, to those of Greece and Italy in Europe, to those of India and the African continent. The plant is widely known in Asia and the Pacific, and is found in the folklore of the Japanese, the Philippines and the Hawaiians. The Spanish used Aloe, and carried it with them to their new world colonies in South America and the Caribbean. Not that this considerable pedigree should call forth images of primitive peoples and their witch doctors. Among the plant’s earliest champions were some of the great figures in the history of medicine and medical thought. One of its earliest proponents was the Greek physician Dioscorides. In each age, on each continent, in each culture, Aloe Vera has drawn the attention of the most sophisticated of minds.
It took early man thousands of years to develop what we know today as the modern understanding of plants, of what can and cannot be consumed, of what will heal and what will harm. It is important to remember that this is the common history of all our knowledge of the world. Most of our marketed medicines are distillations, combinations, reproductions or variations of substances found in nature. Some of these substances were recommended by our forefathers long before their value was demonstrated and understood by scientific method. We should dismiss none of our common heritage of knowledge without real thought and serious investigation. Any serious scientist would acknowledge that the exploration of our world is far from complete.
One of the earliest books on the subject of natural medicine (the only kind known at the time) was the Rig Vede, compiled in India sometime between B.C.E. 4500 and B.C.E. 1600. While it lists hundreds of plants deemed useful in medicine and is the logical starting point for any discussion of alternative medicine, it does not specifically mention Aloe vera. Many believe that a Sumerian clay tablet, found in the city of Nippur, written around B.C.E. 2200, was the first document to include Aloe Vera among plants of great healing power. The first detailed discussion of Aloe’s medicinal value is probably that which is found in the Papyrus ebers, an Egyptian document written around B.C.E. 1550. This document gives twelve formulas for mixing Aloe with other agents to treat both internal and external human disorders. The first milestone in Western man’s detailed understanding of medicinal plants is the work of Hippocrites (460B.C.- 375B.C.), the father of modern medicine (doctors today still take the Hippocratic Oath). His Material Medica makes no direct mention of Aloe, but during that same period, the plant, according to Copra’s Indigenous Drugs of India, had come into widespread use. Interestingly, Copra writes, “The use of Aloes, the common musabbar, for external application to inflamed painful parts of the body and for causing purgation [internal cleansing] are too well known in India to need any special mention.”
In Greek pharmacology, the plant was first mentioned by Celsius (B.C. 25-50 A.D.), but his comments were limited to its power as a purgative. The first Western benchmark in man’s understanding of Aloe is the Greek herbal of Dioscorides (41 A.D.-68 A.D.). This master of Roman pharmacology developed his knowledge and skill as he traveled with that great empire’s armies. Dioscorides gave the first detailed description of the plant we call Aloe Vera, and attributed to its juices “the power of binding, of inducing sleep.” He noted as well that it “loosens the belly, cleansing the stomach.” He further added that this “bitter” Aloe (the sap) was a treatment for boils; that it eased hemorrhoids; that it aided in healing bruises; that it was good for the tonsils, the gums, and all general mouth irritations; and that it worked as a medicine for the eyes. Dioscorides further observed that the whole leaf, when pulverized, could stop the bleeding of many wounds.