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The History Of Aloes

The history of aloes

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The name ‘Aloe’ is derived from the Greek and Arabic words “alsos” and “alloeh” respectively, which means bitter shiny substance referencing the bitter juice from the leaves. Aloe is the name given to the genus (a taxonomic category) that belongs to the Lily (Liliaceae) family and Aloineae tribe. The aloe genus consists of perennial succulent plants that are characterized by fleshy leaves with toothed margins. There are more than 360 aloes that have been identified worldwide. The evolutionary history of aloes is abstract, but the ecological nature of the plant suggests that the genus originated from Africa.

The species in the aloe genus have been used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes and these include: Aloe ferox (Cape aloe), Aloe vera / A. barbadensis (true aloe), Aloe tenuior (gardeners aloe), Aloe cooperi (Cooper’s aloe), Aloe chabaud (chabaud’s aloe), Aloe perryi (Socotra aloe), etc. The historical use of aloes dates back to almost 6,000 years, where it was used as a laxative (in a large dose), stomachic (in a small dose), and wound healing agent.  

Socotra is an island and governorate of Yemen. It was previously named Dvipa Sukhadra, Sanskrit for the Island of Bliss, by the Indians that occupied the place before the arrival of the Greeks. Socotra has the most unique endemic fauna and flora and legend has it that Aristotle advised the king Alexander to conquer it in the 4th century B.C. The aim of the expedition was to acquire the aloe and (other plants) in order to use it to heal the wounds of soldiers.    

The mention of aloe for medicinal purposes was first recorded on the Sumerian Clay Tablets, located in the city of Nippur, that date back to 2100 B.C. The tablets were created during the reign of King of Akkad and they mention the medicinal properties of aloe vera. 

The first detailed record of the medicinal value of aloe was in the Papyrus Ebers that is stored in Leipzig University.  The Papyrus Ebers can be traced back to around 1500 B.C. In it are the twelve formulas for mixing aloe with other agents to treat both internal and external ailments and disorders.

The earliest record of the use of aloe comes from the Egyptians who dubbed the aloe plant, the “Plant of Immortality”, due to its healing properties.  

The ancient Nile Valley civilization of Kemet, which means “black land”, used aloe for medical, cosmetic, and embalming purposes. 

It is said (but not proven) that queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti used the aloe gel as a cosmetic, to maintain their beauty.

The mixture of myrrh and aloe has been used by Egyptians for mummification. Aloe was also used to produce papyrus. 

The Bible refer to the use of aloe in several places:   

  • In Psalm 45:8, the psalmist writes: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, aloe and cinnamon, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.”
  • After removing the body of Christ from the cross in the book of John 19:39, aloe was used to embalm Jesus’ body. “And there came also Nicodemus, which at first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, about a hundred pound weight.” 

Aloe was introduced to Asia between 300 and 400 B.C. in the course of the Persian Conquest by Alexander the Great to western Asia, via the silk road to China. In China, aloe is known as “Lu-hui”, which means black deposit, referring to the processed sap. The first record of aloe in Chinese literature was in the Song Dynasty Materia Medica, where it was cited as the treatment for sinus, fever, skin disease, and convulsion in children. 

 In Korea, aloe is known as “Nohwe”, which means black deposit. It is uncertain when and how aloe was introduced into Korea, but it is presumed based on the history of exchange between Korea and China that it must have come from China during the Song Dynasty. The first record of aloe in Korea was in 1610 in the Korean herbal book, Donguibogam by Hur Jun. After that, several herbal books cited aloe for its precaution of use, clinical applications, and prescriptions.

In Japan, aloe is known as “Rokai” or “Roeh”, which means black deposit. Following the opening of a port to foreign trade, missionaries introduced aloe into Japan, where it was recognized as a plant resin imported by western people for its bitter taste and for its effectiveness in killing insects. It was not until 1886 in the first edition of the Japanese Pharmacopia that aloe was officially recognized as medicine to treat constipation and gastric disorder internally, and burns, wounds and abrasions externally. 

Aloe was introduced to western medicine in 50 B.C. as a laxative. The first detailed description about the pharmacological effects of aloe was in the Greek Herbal of Pedanius Dioscorides. The Greek physician and pharmacologist recorded that the sap was collected and boiled down into a black mass for storage and transportation. He also mentioned the following healing effects: it induces sleep, cleanses the stomach, treats for boils and ulcerated genitals, heals foreskin, and is good for dry itchy skin irritation, hemorrhoids, bruises, stops hair loss, and mouth pain, and stops bleeding of wounds, heals tonsillitis and diseases of the mouth and eyes.

During the 12th century, aloe plants and dried sap were used as medicine throughout Europe. Afterwards, processed aloe was used as a purgative and medicine to treat external wounds and diseases. 

During the 17th century, aloe plants were widespread throughout the Caribbean islands and Central and South America. In the island of Barbados and the Caribbean, aloe was cultivated as a cash crop. The sap was harvested and boiled into a black mass and exported to Europe. 

Around 1720, Carl Von Linne named aloe scientifically as Aloe vera L. (“true aloe”). In 1820, aloe was officially designated as being a purgative and skin protectant by the United States Pharmacopoeia (U.S.P.). 

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References and further resources:

  • Brendler, T. and Cock, I.E., 2022. Cape aloe bitters–past and present. South African Journal of Botany, 147, pp.1016-1026.
  • Crouch, N.R., Smith, G.F. and Klopper, R.R., 2013. A brief history of Aloe discovery and popularisation in southern Africa. Scripta Botanica Belgica, 50, pp.192-196.
  • Haller Jr, J.S., 1990. A drug for all seasons. Medical and pharmacological history of aloe. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 66(6), p.647.
  • Lee, S.K., 2006. Overview of Aloe study. In New Perspectives on Aloe (pp. 1-5). Boston, MA: Springer US.
  • Manvitha, K. and Bidya, B., 2014. Aloe vera: a wonder plant with its history, cultivation and medicinal uses. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, 2(5), pp.85-88.
  • Martínez-Burgos, W.J., Serra, J.L., Marsiglia, F.R.M., Montoya, P., Sarmiento-Vásquez, Z., Marin, O., Gallego-Cartagena, E. and Paternina-Arboleda, C.D., 2022. Aloe vera: From ancient knowledge to the patent and innovation landscape – A review. South African Journal of Botany, 147, pp.993-1006.
  • Mehta, I., 2017. ’History of Aloe Vera’ – (A Magical Plant). IOSR J Humanit Soc Sci (IOSR-JHSS [Internet], 22(8), pp.21-4.
  • Socotra trek tours. 2023. History of Socotra. Available at: Accessed on: [10 December 2023]. 
  • Sung, C.K., 2006. The history of Aloe. In New perspectives on Aloe (pp. 7-17). Boston, MA: Springer US.

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