Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera, by Diane Gage
reviewed 2005-04-25 by Rosemarie L. Coste

My old paperback copy of Aloe Vera (Healing Arts Press, 1988) is not much to look at. Other than the cover photograph, there are no illustrations. Because the pages have aged to two very different yellows, showing that sections of the book were printed on different types of paper, the edges have an odd, striped appearance. It’s not much to read, either, only ninety-eight pages divided into fourteen chapters before two short appendices (“Definitions for Aloe Vera” and “Useful Addresses”) and a five-page “Bibliographic Notes” section.

Brevity is not necessarily a shortcoming in a book but, combined with habitual pointless repetition (for example, introducing a person by full name, academic credentials, job title, employer’s name, and employer’s location, even when the same full introduction for the same person was provided on the preceding chapter and will be provided again, two pages later, in the following chapter), it suggests that the author had difficulty producing a required number of words but was determined to crank them out anyway, whether or not those words added meaning.

Like the unnecessary repetitions, the imprecise citations in the book remind me of undergraduate student papers, showing that the author has the right impulse to identify the sources of ideas but doesn’t know how to do that gracefully. It’s sometimes possible to match up “[laboratory] has proven” or “[scientist] has published a study” with the items in the “Bibliographic Notes”, but it was the writer’s job to make that process work more smoothly for the reader than it does.

Gage has written other more recent books on aloe; perhaps those are more polished. This one, with all its flaws, contains some useful insights that make it worth examining. Chapter 3, “The Inside Story: How Aloe Vera Works”, Chapter 4, “The Making of Aloe Vera”, and Chapter 5, “The Blossoming Aloe Vera Industry”, as well as the “Definitions for Aloe Vera” appendix, may be of interest to anyone who has wondered what is meant by the many terms used to describe this plant material when it is used as an ingredient. Labels may list “extract”, “gel”, “juice”, “latex”, “whole leaf”, “oil”, or “concentrate”; Gage’s book explains how each of these is obtained from the plant and how it is customarily used. She also hints at how the biochemical makeup of each component explains its potential uses and, in the case of latex, dangers. By describing and comparing the variety of methods used in harvesting and processing the plants, Gage does a good job of explaining why there can be great variation in the content of the same natural product provided by different suppliers; her discussion of the struggle to develop standards within the industry also explains some of the current difficulties in that regard.

Since the book doesn’t provide any illustrations, I decided to dissect a leaf of one of my own plants to confirm that I could identify the structures defined. Some photographs of the results are included here; I think they show that this familiar plant has a complex and interesting nature, worthy of further study.

Whole Plant: This plant is about five years old and has grown (and overgrown) in a pot outdoors  all that time.
Cut leaf oozing yellow latex: The bitter yellow liquid comes from tubules in the rind; its major components, aloin and barbaloin, are used as laxatives.
Opened leaf showing green rind and clear gel: With the rind peeled away, the gel is visible. The gel is used in skincare; it consists largely of water, with a small content of amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, anthraquinone complexes, and other materials.
Gel removed from leaf: Freed from the rind, the gel oozes some water but holds its shape well as a jiggly, gelatinous blob. This finger-thick piece, left exposed in an air-conditioned room overnight, evaporated to the thickness of onion skin.