History Of Aloe

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aloe vera

The considerable volume of promotional literature on Aloe vera has publicised that the extensive use of aloe in modern times dates from the observation made by the western world that natural leaves and juice of aloes were used with dramatic success by some Japanese survivors of the nuclear explosions in 1945. This led to the large-scale cultivation of aloes (Aloe vera) in the USA and Mexico, to provide material for the manufacture of ingredients for aloe products for the skin-care market.   Subsequent sales promotions set out, very successfully, to elevate Aloe vera to the status of an exclusive and almost mystical plant. The historic fact is that it was actually a different species – Aloe arborescence (also indigenous to South Africa) – which had been used successfully at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and continues to be the subject of popular use and extensive research in Japan.

aloe products for cosmetic use

The earlier history of the cosmetic use of aloe, going back three thousand years and more, has also been extensively covered as part of the promotion of Aloe vera. Recent popular accounts are based on old and difficult-to-interpret written records and are misleading in terms of up-to-date botanical knowledge.   We know today that Aloe vera, as a distinct species, is indigenous only to Yemenite Arabia and was spread from there even before Biblical times. Later, explorers and traders continued the distribution, to both the east (including India and China) and westwards. Columbus and subsequent Spanish navigators transported aloes and it is known that aloes were also shipped during the subsequent slave trade to the USA; these may well have been West African plants of species other than Aloe vera.   Botanists are aware that so-called Aloe vera plantations in the southern USA and Mexico include species other than Aloe vera. Hence, nowadays, people generally tend to refer to all aloe plants or products as “Aloe vera”, no matter which species of aloe has been used – much like people often refer to a vacuum cleaner as a “Hoover” which is actually a brand name!

aloe ferox in south africa

Despite the fact that the aloe was well-known in many other parts of the world for hundreds of years, it is interesting to note that isolated societies as far removed as the indigenous peoples of South Africa such as the KhoiSan (or Bushmen), had independently also discovered the uses of aloes.

Aloe ferox bitter crystals

Aloe ferox bitter crystals

There are many more reports of the use of South African aloes by different ethnic groups. Interesting pictorial evidence of this is the presence of Aloe ferox in centuries-old rock paintings preserved in a cave. The San (Bushmen) were not caricaturists; they depicted those animals and other phenomena, natural or mystic, that were important in their daily lives.   Although Aloe ferox crystals were one of the first products to be exported from the Cape in the 1600’s, it is only within the last 20 years that a more formal aloe industry has begun to emerge in South Africa.