The yellow aloe is probably the only plant that is better known by its scientific name, Aloe vera, than by its common name. It is a succulent plant that probably originated in North Africa. It is nowadays widely cultivated and no wild indigenous populations can be found anywhere in the world.
In the Maltese islands it can be found in homes and gardens but a few specimens that originated from escaped cultivated plants can be found in the countryside such as in the garigue habitat near the Pembroke military ranges.
It is said that this species was introduced in China and southern Europe in the 17th Century. Nowadays it is naturalised in many countries including Australia, Nigeria, Mexico and the United States of America, and is widely cultivated in various parts of the world including Australia, Bangladesh, Cuba, China, Mexico, India, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.
As is common with widespread, well-known species the yellow aloe has many common names including Chinese aloe, Indian aloe, true aloe, Barbados aloe, burn aloe and first aid plant.
In Maltese it is known as sabbara, a word of Semitic origin used in some Arab countries for cacti. It is claimed that the name of the village Żabbar is derived from the name of this plant although there are other explanations for the origin of the name.
Aloe vera has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years. It was depicted in an Egyptian six thousand year old stone carving in which it was referred to as the plant of immortality. It was also mentioned in 16th Century BC medical texts.
It is still very popular in herbal medicine for its rejuvenating, healing and soothing properties. It is also widely used in cosmetics although there is still no scientific evidence for any of these properties.
This article was published in The Times of Malta on 12 June 2014.