Aloe vera: How to Care for This Classic Houseplant

Aloe vera has been a classic houseplant for a very long time because of its ease of care, tolerance for a wide range of environments, and its medicinal use for burns.

Today we will dig into where this plant is native, how to care for it, whether it’s actually effective at healing burns, and more.

Table of Contents

Where does Aloe vera grow naturally?

Aloe vera is native to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or the Arabian Peninsula, where it grows in varying light levels (including full sun) and poor soil conditions.

This means Aloe vera has adapted to endure desert-like conditions where temperatures are high and rainfall is minimal.

aloe vera 1
Aloe vera in Peru, Photo by: Daniel Montesinos T, iNaturalist, Source

You can see the sun-stressed colors that Aloe vera can develop when exposed to lots of sun. Some people find this coloration beautiful and some people prefer a greener plant.

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Aloe vera in Mexico, Photo by: Carlos Domínguez-Rodríguez, iNaturalist, Source

Aloe vera will bloom periodically. Here you can see the beautiful yellow flowers. I’ve read that Aloe vera can also produce orange or white flowers, but I do wonder if these other colors are actually the product of Aloe vera hybrids.

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Aloe vera in Espanja, Photo by: Jaakko Ilvonen, iNaturalist, Source

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How to Care for Aloe vera

Aloe vera Care Summary

In-depth care is below this chart

Humidity:Normal household humidity levels
Light:Lots of bright light
Pot:Any pot with a drainage hole
Potting Mix:A well-draining mix
Water:Water when dry
Fertilizer:Fertilize at a diluted strength a few times during active growth

Humidity

Aloe vera does fine in a wide range of humidity levels.

Light

Aloe vera can tolerate bright indirect light but will grow best in the brightest spots in your home.

In the wild, they can grow in full sun, so there is little chance of providing too much sun indoors.

Without enough light, Aloe vera will begin to stretch or etiolate and will not grow as thick, succulent leaves.

Aloe vera that is grown in lower light levels will also be more prone to overwatering since it isn’t receiving enough light to use the water you provide quickly.

If you have been growing Aloe vera in a darker spot for some time and want to give it better light, it may need to be acclimated to prevent burn.

Pot/Planter

Aloe vera wants a pot that isn’t much larger than its root ball and has ample drainage holes. This is to prevent Aloe vera from sitting in a wet potting mix for an extended period of time, as its roots are very sensitive to long-term moisture.

Potting mix

Aloe vera prefers a super well-draining potting mix. A mix with lots of perlite, pumice, and/or sand would work well. I personally use a 50/50 mix of pumice/sand to potting mix. This has worked well for me.

If using sand, ensure that you add horticultural sand or builder’s sand. Playground sand is too fine and will actually weigh down a potting mix rather than add drainage.

Water

Aloe vera prefers to dry out completely before receiving water again. What does it mean to dry out completely? It means that the potting mix should be dry from top to bottom in the pot.

Ways to check whether the potting mix is dry:

  1. If in a terracotta or plastic pot, feel how heavy the pot is after watering and then after a week or more to understand how light it becomes when dry.
  2. Use a moisture meter to test how moist the potting mix is throughout the entire pot.
  3. Insert your finger into the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot. If the potting mix feels wet, do not water. If dry, your aloe is ready for water!

Aloe vera is much more equipped for periods of drought than for long wet periods. As such, we want to be super careful to not water Aloe vera when it is still wet. Long-term moisture will likely cause the roots to begin to suffocate and deteriorate, inviting root rot.

Fertilizer

Because aloes are adapted to live in poor soil conditions, they are naturally used to receiving little nutrients from the soil.

This means that we can fertilize aloes sparingly, applying a little fertilizer once or twice a year during the growing season is plenty.

I personally use Espoma Organics Cactus Fertilizer, which is designed to work well for succulents, cacti, citrus, and palms. (NPK ratio: 1-2-2)

I’ll include a link to this particular fertilizer on Amazon via the Affiliate Program:

Common Aloe vera issues

Brown, crispy leaf tips

Brown, crispy leaf tips are typically due to underwatering. Crispy parts can be trimmed off and the plant can be checked more regularly for watering to discourage further brown tips.

Leaves turning orange, red, or brown

Typically this is a sign of stress on the plant. If the plant was moved outside or moved from a dark location indoors to a very bright location indoors, it can develop these colors due to the drastic light change.

To avoid stressing your plant, acclimate it to a new area by slowly introducing it over a period of days for growing lengths of time.

Leaves and plant stretching

Stretching is typically a sign that the plant needs more light. If your aloe’s foliage is thin and long, or if the plant is reaching toward the light source, it is searching for more light.

Leaves turning yellow and/or mushy

Leaves turning yellow and/or mushy is often a sign of overwatering. If you aren’t letting the plant completely dry out or if the plant is sitting in moisture for more than a week, its probably overwatering.

To cure overwatering, check these issues:

  1. How large is the root ball in comparison to the pot size? The root ball should take up 2/3 of the pot.
  2. How much light is the plant getting? If it’s not directly in front of a window, move it. Succulents, like aloe, need lots of light.
  3. How well-draining is the potting mix? If the potting mix is mostly one dark color, it’s probably mostly peat moss which can retain a lot of water for a long period of time. Aloe doesn’t want long-term moisture. Move the plant into a potting mix that has lots of perlite, pumice, and/or sand that will allow water to pass through the pot quickly.
  4. How wet is the potting mix when you decide to water it? Aloes are equipped for drought because their natural environment doesn’t receive a lot of rain. If the plant has any level of moisture in its pot from top to bottom, wait longer to water.

Plant not growing

If the plant isn’t growing at all after an extended period of time, try increasing light levels, checking the plant more regularly for thirst (long-term drought can keep the plant from growing), and checking for pests.

It’s also possible that the plant is so root-bound it isn’t getting the moisture it needs to sustain growth. Aloes can survive for a long time in a tight pot, but will eventually reach a limit.

Variegated Aloe vera

I wanted to include a small section on the variegated Aloe vera that I have, which I don’t hear people talking about much.

Variegated Aloe vera sports long white stripes down the length of the leaves. The variegated color varies a bit, creating a gorgeous mixture of greens and creams.

I found a reputable seller with variegated Aloe vera a couple of years ago. The plant is quite beautiful, but was a poor shipper and still looks a little rough after 2 years. However, it has been easy to care for and seems to be doing a little better after lots of recovery and rehab time.

I’ve only seen the seller post another variegated Aloe vera once since I originally purchased mine and they currently do not have a page for it at all on their site. It seems this plant is not very popular or super available.

Is Aloe vera toxic to pets and people?

Aloe vera is toxic to pets and people. It is sometimes consumed but must be prepared in such a way as to remove the parts of the plant that are particularly toxic and bitter.

Please do your own research on how to properly prepare Aloe vera for consumption. I am by no means qualified to provide advice on how it can be consumed, how it should be prepped, etcetera.

Does Aloe vera actually help with the pain and healing of burns?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, multiple studies have determined that Aloe vera gel “may reduce pain from burns” and “may speed burn healing.” […]

“Topical use of aloe gel is generally well tolerated. However, there have been occasional reports of burning, itching, and eczema with topical use of aloe gel.”

Health Information regarding Aloe vera, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, Last Updated August 2020.

To me, this means that there is no guarantee that Aloe vera gel will help you when you have a burn, but it could help and is generally considered safe.

While researching the topic, I also ran across an article from the New York Times which reviewed some studies that sought to understand more about Aloe vera and its medicinal effectiveness.

What I found most interesting in this article is how unreliable over-the-counter Aloe vera products are. Here’s why:

“Because over-the-counter aloe products are considered cosmetics, they aren’t strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not standardized in this way. So the quality of what you get can vary, and the benefits found in research studies may not directly apply to the aloe products you can find online or in drugstores. […]

The products you buy are not guaranteed to contain any aloe at all. […]

Aloe vera should be listed as one of the first three [ingredients] […]

Looking for Latin names, like Aloe vera or Aloe barbadensis, on the list, can also help verify that an aloe product is real […]

Avoid any products that say they include Aloe ferox, a different plant species that is smaller, grows faster and is cheaper to use than aloe, but is less well studied, has different medicinal properties and does not work for sunburn.”

Does Aloe Help Sunburn? By Emily Sohn, New York Times, Published August 20, 2021

So, what is my takeaway from all of this?

Aloe vera is most effective when actually present in products at high concentrations, which means that using the sap directly from a plant will likely provide you with the largest benefit.

However, studies do vary in how effective the plant is at reducing pain and speeding healing from burns, so it’s completely up to you whether you decide to try Aloe vera when treating a burn or just grow it as a pretty, low-maintenance indoor plant.

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