A Plant For Every Preschool

I’ve just got back from speaking at the opening day of SEEN, the world’s first early childhood learning conference, at Cockatoo Island, Sydney.

The theme was sustainability – creating the future today. There were discussions about plant safety, landscaping and books on these topics for carers and educators. A great conference and some really uplifting people…

Here is a plant I recommend that every child should know how to grow and use – Aloe vera.

A plant for every preschool
If all plants were as simple to grow as aloe vera, I’d be out of a job. Do strong sunshine, heat, frequent gales, salt-spray or drought affect your garden? Then aloe vera is for you. Pressed for time? That’s fine too – aloe vera doesn’t need fussing over to grow well.

Aloe vera used to be known by scientists as Aloe barbadensis and many older books will use only that name. Aloe vera is the most widely cultivated aloe. Happily it’s the easiest to grow. A happy aloe vera reaches between 1 -1.5m high when grown in full sunshine and rich soil, especially if it’s occasionally watered during prolonged dry weather.

There are several varieties of aloe vera, each with variously patterned and coloured leaves. Some have prickly, toothed leaves and others have smoother leaves, but all have tubular orange or yellow flowers.

Grow your own first aid kit
Climate Change means Australian weather is becoming hotter and UV radiation is increasing in intensity. Southern Australia has for many years experienced intensified UV radiation as a result of the hole in the Ozone Layer. As a result, Australians are more likely to suffer from skin cancers than any other country on Earth: Brisbane is the world’s centre for skin cancer. The more sunshine your skin is exposed to the greater the risk.

You can harvest and use cooling, fresh aloe vera sap all year round. Use the clear jelly inside. The outer skin tastes bitter and can be used to control nail biting like bitter aloes. Pure aloe vera juice can be squeezed out.

Dr Ian Tizard, A&M University, Texas (USA) was reported in the Science Daily (28.6.02) saying that the polysaccharide in aloe vera is well known for helping to heal burns, wounds, bedsores, psoriasis, eczema and diabetic and vascular ulcers. It’s particularly effective at helping slow to heal wounds on the elderly.

This polysaccharide is found in the clear, runny sap. Applied to skin, this sap forms a healing gel. While polysaccharides are found in many plants, that of aloe vera “seems to bind growth factors in wounds which whereas normally they would be destroyed”. How it works is not yet understood, but we do know that fresh, home grown sap remains useful for about one month if stored in a sealed container in the fridge.

Every Australian garden should be growing aloe vera and every gardener should learn how to use it.

Growing aloe vera
Aloe vera is perfect for unconfident gardeners of all ages. It originates from Africa and Arabia, but is now grown worldwide. About 100 other species of aloe originate from Africa, Arabia and Madagascar.

Best climate
Aloe vera prefers a frost-free climate. They love WA & SA. If you garden in our east coast or tropical north, you’ll need to provide excellent drainage. Or grow them in pots.

Bird-friendly
Aloes and birds go beak in bud together. The flowers and their sweet nectar have evolved to lure hungry birds to ensure pollination, but Australian birds don’t do as good a job. Plants slowly sucker, forming clumps. Rain collects in the leaves, providing a useful drink for thirsty birds and other animals.

Other useful aloes
Aloe marlothii, Mountain Aloe
Branched red, orange or yellow flowers. A heavy-set, imposing, erect, single-stemmed plant. Very slowly reaches 4m high with rather prickly toothed leaves about 1m long. Tolerant of salt-laden winds and frost. The bitter tasting sap is sometimes called ‘bitter aloes’ and is used to paint nails to discourage nail-biting, or as a cure for constipation.

Aloe maculata (syn. A. saponaria)
Pink, yellow or reddish flower spikes to 1 metre. Mottled foliage on low, slightly prickly, clumping plants to 30cm. Easy, vigorous and adaptable – tolerates light frost. Flowers in winter, spring and summer. The bitter-tasting sap can be used as a substitute for soap.

In pots
Aloes don’t suffer if they outgrow their pot, but their roots may split it. Repot them after flowering.

* Use a mix prepared for cacti and succulents;
* Use terracotta pots in preference to plastic;
* Never stand pots in saucers;
* Never let drainage holes get blocked;
* Stand them outdoors under eaves or a rain shelter during really wet weather.

Planting tips
Aloe vera and its relatives succeed in half a day’s sunshine (or more). Root rots can be aggressive in warm, humid, overcast, wet weather. Sandy, gravelly or shallow soils have a natural advantage over poorly draining clay soils.

Condition clay soil using gypsum, and work in plenty of gravel before planting. This improves workability, aeration and drainage.

Planting on mounds, ridged soil or raised beds, between 15 – 30cm high, is essential in the wet tropics or monsoonal northern Australia.

Transplanting tips
Large specimens are very heavy and may need a support until re-established. During lifting, neatly trim back any torn roots. Use sharp secateurs.

When transplanting remember which side was facing north, because if the shaded (south-facing) side ends up facing full northern sun, plants will be sun burned!

Never water transplanted aloes.

Watering
Most aloes die as a result of over watering. Indoors or out they’ll only need occasional watering, perhaps once a month during dry winters and spring at most. I water only when they’re really, really dry which is when the leaves start to shrivel.

Feeding
Most people never feed aloes, but they slowly and visibly respond. When planting add a handful of blended certified organic fertiliser for each plant, working this into the planting hole.

During their winter and spring growing season, feed monthly with seaweed.

Each spring sprinkle a handful of blended organic fertiliser around their base.

Did you know?

* It’s said that Alexander the Great (356 -323 BC) conquered the remote Arabian desert island of Socotra to control aloe vera production. Why? Their sap was prized for healing wounds, essential for any army on the move;

* Landclearing and illegal collecting have resulted in about a third of all aloe species being threatened with extinction. (Aloe vera isn’t threatened). Trade in all wild aloes – from seeds to plants – is now regulated by international treaty;

Africans eat certain aloe flowers, drink their nectar and use some for traditional medicine and magic, but for me the most magical thing is the way Aloe vera protects skin against sun burn.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
2nd November 2007