February 14 , 2006


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The Definitive Aloe vera, vera?

Strawberry Pear/Dragon Fruit/Pitahaya Fruits of Cacti

Curator’s Comments


The Definitive Aloe vera, vera?

by Gary Lyons, Curator of the Desert Garden

Known to have been used at least since Sumerian times and a major commercial medicinal plant today, the most celebrated aloe is the medicinal aloe, Aloe vera. The species name “vera” means “true” and students of medical botany and plant taxonomists have puzzled over the identity of the “true Aloe vera” for many years. Perhaps its identity crisis will never be resolved. Namely, which Aloe vera is Aloe vera? This sounds like a zen master’s metaphysical question, but the issue is real. The question falls into two parts: (1) is the Aloe vera recorded in medical texts since ancient times a plant, or as we shall see, more than one plant, and, (2) are the ancient herbalists actually naming different forms of processed product.?

Aloe vera, also known as A. barbadensis

Herbalists, medical botanists and plant taxonomists have described as Aloe vera at least three dissimilar plants/products since ancient times. One of them has canary yellow flowers, another has orange flowers. Oh yes, there is a Joker—a third aloe called the socotran aloe, A. perryi. These so called facts, liturgically recited in herbals and floras for hundreds of years, can be traced to the writings of the Greek physician and rhizotomist, Dioscorides, who lived in the first century A.D. In about A.D 77, he produced a work called De Materia medica, a herbal that described about six hundred different kinds of plants, mostly native to Greece and to Asia Minor, that could be used in treating disease. In it he described three kinds of aloe: socotrine, hepatic, and caballine. But what was unclear is whether or not he described different kinds of processed product or different species, or if he confused the processing of the plant with species description. Anyway, he called all of them Aloe and illustrated one plant, not three. Today it is generally agreed that the species Dioscorides described is Aloe vera, but was that in fact the ancient Greek’s first choice for a medicinal aloe? There is compelling evidence that the processed products indeed were different species, but which species? We can only speculate about this, because for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, much of the supposed natural range of medicinal aloes covered a part of the world that was a major point of convergence of trade routes from China, India, Arabia, and Africa into the Mediterranean world.

Is the taxonomy of A. vera clear enough that we can make some sense of the mysterious A. vera imitators? If you go to a health food store or nursery today you find yellow and orange-flowered medicinal aloes and both are inexplicably labeled A. vera. For me there is a problem because only one of them is A. vera, but which one? (Of course we know today that many orange or coral flowering aloes also have a yellow-flowered version). It is generally conceded that A. vera is the larger of the two plants and this yellow- flowered version, which by the way was called A. vulgaris and more recently A. barbadensis. However, A. vera trumped A. barbadensis--- the sharp eye of Kenyan botanist Len Newton demonstrated in 1979 that A. vera was validly described and published by N.L.Burman in his Flora Indica about April 6, 1768, and Phillip Miller described A. vera as A. barbadensis in the sixth (1768) edition of his Gardener’s Dictionary which was published on April 16, 1768, about ten days later! Anyway, Barbados Aloe, Medicinal Aloe, and Aloe vera in modern parlance, all refer today to the yellow-flowered form. It is this yellow-flowered plant called A. vera that is widely grown today as the source of aloe in our commercial products. It is the same taxon introduced to California by the missionaries. Here at the Huntington you will find it growing beneath the Aloe bainesii (or Aloe barberae if you split hairs on nomenclatural priorities) as you make your way down to the Desert Garden. More plants can be observed in the new Heritage Walk, right at the base of Raymond Hill where in December and January there is a spectacular floral flourish of coral red Aloe arborescens and A. x ‘Principis’.

Aloe arborescens at Christmastime
Aloe arborescens - Rare yellow-flowered form

Now, what about this orange-flowered pretender? It, too, is known in different nomenclatural disguises. Since the 18th century botanists have called it A. chinensis, or A. vera var. chinensis, i.e., the vera from China. Even today this name is commonly found in the nursery trade. It could be folklore, but I have heard that the var. chinensis is more efficacious than A. vera. In what way I do not know. In 1768, Philip Miller described it in his famous and extremely heavy Gardener’s Dictionary which I rarely consult because I have a bad back. Like our native deserts' common goatnut, or jojoba, Simmondsia chinensis, the name is completely misleading. Neither Jojoba nor Aloe grow in China and perhaps some plant person recorded hearsay. Aloe has no connection to China unless Chinese traders brought living plants of this orange-flowered aloe from east Africa to China. Both Arab and Chinese traders excelled in hiding their sources and traders may have attributed its source as China just to keep a monopoly on a product that could have been readily obtained by others directly from the nearby Red Sea region. In most respects A.vera var. chinensis compares favorably to A. officinalis, native to lower elevations around the Red Sea and has been traded for millennia throughout the area adjacent to the northeastern African coast, the southern Arabian continent and possibly the Persian Gulf. Examining living plants here at the Huntington has shown that there is little or no difference between the so called medicinal aloe from China and another species in the garden. It certainly is more frost tender than the yellow A. vera, strongly suggesting live plants did not naturalize in the Mediterranean region. We might conclude then that it was the dried and bagged leaf sap of A. officinalis, not living plants, and perhaps not even the yellow flowered A. vera, that was carried by caravan into the Greco-Roman world. To confuse matters more, it could have been traded as Socotrine aloes (A. perryi) or could have been adulterated by the product of some other species. Who’s to know?

Aloe bainesii
Aloe bainesii var. medusae

Aloe vera var. chinensis is known under some other aliases that we should identify because this name, var. chinensis, should be dropped in favor of one of the aliases. First, when we study the several aloe species native to the Arab world, we find those often called A. vera and A. vera var. chinensis compare to some look-alike species growing throughout much of region. Then, upon becoming more familiar with this group of plants, which nineteeth century botanist Alwin Berger called Series verae, it becomes apparent that the taxon var. chinensis has no connection to what we now know as A. vera. Perhaps our true A. vera is from another part of the ancient world, such as the Persian Gulf, the mountainous regions of Yemen and Oman, or even the Ethiopian highlands. It may not be a lowland or coastal species, although it is in the Mediterranean where it naturalized long ago.

Aloe massawana

Now let us discuss A. officinalis, A. massawana, and A. perryi, three species, two of which are found near sea level on the east African and Arabian coasts in the Red Sea region. The other grows on the fabled Island of the Dragon’s Blood, Socotra, in the Indian Ocean. A. officinalis was discovered and described by the plucky Peter Forsskal, a pupil of Linnaeus, in the late 18th century. Forsskal’s plants were sent to Sweden in one box and he in another. Lusting after exotic blossoms ended the lives of many field botanists and even the great Linnaeus lamented that he had sent so many of his younger disciples to distant lands where their careers were truncated by death.

Unfortunately, Forsskal did not elaborate on why he chose officinalis for his new aloe. The word means “officinal,” a term used to classify the status of plants that have proven medicinal properties and are, or were, recognized in standard pharmacopeias. Therefore we can conclude that his officinalis was used for medicinal purposes by the locals, but the epithet seems to connote that it had special status above that of the other aloes grown or cultivated in that area. We can buttress this argument by noting the sources and kinds of medicinal aloes recorded by Dioscorides and repeated by herbalists for over seventeen hundred years.

For example the great medieval encyclopedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus in the 1495 Wynken de Worde edition of On the Properties of Things continues the authority of Dioscorides when he observes:

“Also of aloe ben thre kyndes Citrinum, Epaticum, and Caballinum as Plato [Platearius]sayth. And thyse thre kyndis ben dyueis [diverse] in goodness. For Caballinum is good; Epaticum is better and Citrinum is beste.”

John Gerarde, in the 1597 edition of his The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, also follows Dioscorides when he reveals that A. vera is not recommended for human consumption:

Aloe massawana

“This plant groweth very plentifully in India, and in Arabia, Coelosyria. and Egypt, from whence the iuice put into skins is brought into Europe. It groweth also, as Dioscorides writeth, in Asia on the sea coasts, and in Andros, but not very fit for iuice to be drawn out. It is likewise founde in Apulia and in divers places of Granado and Andalusia, in Spaine not far from the sea: the iuice of this also is unprofitable,” (Italics mine. He is most certainly referring to naturalized populations of A. vera.)

John Parkinson’s Theatricum Botanicum of 1640 introduces further commentary on medicinal aloes that gives further proof that A. vera was not the plant of choice:

“The [aloe] groweth in Arabia, Asia, Syria, and all the East countries, and in India, as well as a great way within the land, as neare the Sea side, and in the Islands there, as in Socotora [Socotra] as Garcia saith, where the best is made, as also in many places of Italy, and in Spaine about Andalousia neare the sea shore in such plenty, that divers thought to have made good store of Aloes there, but after traiall was made, it was not found any way so effectuall as the Indian sort.” (Italics mine)

Years ago we received a plant collected by John Lavranos and Len Newton in the Red Sea region and labeled A. officinalis. It was a very small plant and I thought it best to grow it in the Desert Garden nursery before planting it in the garden. Sadly the plant was lost in a heavy rain followed by a freeze. It never flowered and to my knowledge has not been reintroduced. I hoped to compare A. officinalis to A. vera var. chinensis and A. massawana. I was able to observe that Lavranos’ collection of A. officinalis fit the size, shape, and leaf texture of the latter two aloes, suggesting that it could be identical with A. vera var. chinensis and A. massawana. We do have the latter two taxa growing in the Desert Garden in the African section along the central path near Aloe ‘ Hercules.’ Both have orange flowers produced on slender solitary or single-branched racemes. There seems to be little or no difference between A. vera var. chinensis and A. massawana.

So what can we do to resolve confusion about the identity of Aloe vera ? A taxonomist might analyze the earliest illustration and description of A. vera, the earliest found in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, the earliest surviving copy written about AD 512, and we might say the plant closely resembles our yellow-flowered A. vera. The plant illustrated in ancient times shows what could pass for A. vera, but it is not in flower. There is an emerging bud subtended by a rather robust peduncle, a feature that fits nicely with A. vera. However, one translation of the text gives the flower color as white. But that would not be the first time someone has referred to yellow as white. Perhaps a copyist was color blind or, as anthropologists have recorded, color perception can be culturally conditioned and what one culture might call “white” we would call “yellow.” By this time A. vera was probably naturalized in the Mediterranean region and how it got there is uncertain. The Phoenicians could have introduced it when they settled in the eastern Mediterranean.

Aloe vera

By the time optometrist turned botanist Gilbert Westacott Reynolds published his authoritative volume The Aloes of Tropical Africa and Madagascar (1966), the taxon A. vera dragged along a veritable compost heap of synonyms, which, if living plants had been examined and described from living material, might have been synonyms for other species. Even Reynolds called our yellow-flowered aloe “A. barbadensis” in error. There is a strong suspicion that epithets such as (1) A. vera var. chinensis, (2) A. vera var. lanzae (described and figured in Alwin Berger’s 1908 work on aloes and a perfect fit for A. officinalis and A. massawana), (3) A. indica, and (4) A. perfoliata all probably belong to the same taxon that we should call A. officinalis. And also, should the name A. vulgaris be maintained as a name synonymous with A. vera? Why? History shows the old herbalists, Gerarde, Parkinson, and others followed Dioscorides in calling the yellow-flowered aloe (meaning A. vera) a vulgar aloe, not fit for human consumption and recommended only as a purgative suitable for veterinary medicine; i.e., for farm animals. And this is the aloe we use today.

That’s bitter medicine, indeed. Significant trade in A. officinalis and other aloes in the Series verae certainly must have taken place in ancient times. They could have come into the Mediterranean world as part of the Frankincense trade. It now becomes apparent that there indeed were other aloes more efficacious than the “caballine” A. vera. There is an account that relates how Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to conquer the mysterious island of Socotra* because on that island is found the best aloe for treating battlefield wounds. That would be of tremendous strategic importance to his armies as he expanded his empire into the Middle East. But Alexander died of fever as he was making his way to Socotra. Another version of Alexander’s campaigns in the Middle East is that one of his generals did indeed take over Socotra, established a colony of Greeks on the island and exported Aloe perryi and Dragon’s Blood to the Mediterranean world. Some historians say this never happened. But what would have happened if Alexander or his generals did make it to Socotra, returned with living plants of A. perryi? I do know A. perryi had a miserable survival rate in the Desert Garden. The roots always rotted and it never flowered. Would it have naturalized in the Mediterranean just like our overvalued A. vera? Not likely. Our yellow-flowered garden and popular commercial plant, as far as we know, never grew on Socotra. We know that Reynolds was wrong about its native habitat being the Canary Islands. Aloe perryi and A. forbesii do grow on Socotra and it is A. perryi that is alleged to have been commercially grown and exported since ancient times. And there is more. The mystery still is not solved but it seems medical and pharmaceutical botanists should take a closer look at A. officinalis…perhaps take a good look at all aloe species, particularly those belonging to the Series verae, consisting of about two dozen species concentrated in the Arabian subcontinent and northeast Africa, because we may be missing something important in the world of medicinal plants. Perhaps something got lost in translation. Why did the herbalists state that Aloe vera was not fit for human consumption and if so, why do we consume that species and not the one we consider here to be A. officinalis?

*We know Socotra today as the home of Dracaena cinnabari and other marvelous succulents found nowhere else in the world.


Strawberry Pear/Dragon Fruit/Pitahaya Fruits of Cacti

by Joanne Gram

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America's journal for November-December 2005 has a few surprises inside. Gavin Hart of Australia has produced a fascinating article on the “Dragon Fruit.” It even includes a photo of a plantation in New South Wales at latitude 29° South (the Vallance Orchard Nursery), and an ad for dragon fruit. When this was mentioned to Matt Stevens, Editor of the Huntington Frontiers, he said while traveling he found out that dragon fruit is his favorite fruit. The fruit was also featured recently in the LA Times. Outside of Australia it is cultivated in Southern California in Fallbrook and the Coachella Valley, Israel, Vietnam, Mexico, Central America (e.g., Nicaragua) and South America (e.g., Colombia). Agricultural scientists have visited the Huntington Botanical Gardens in the past to observe our plants, and have obtained seeds and cuttings in order to hybridize the fruit.

The French introduced Hylocereus undatus to Vietnam 100 years ago, and it is the country's most profitable crop. The flower is one of the largest in the cactus family and may exceed 40 cm in length and have a 20 cm diameter (a foot is about 30 cm). These are the premier cactus fruit and they have no spines. Instead, they have medium-sized fleshy “scales.” In the Americas they are called the strawberry pear and in Asia, the dragon fruit. Hart lists over sixty kinds of cacti that produce various fruits with marketing potential, including our very spiny prickly pears.

The Huntington Desert Garden has perhaps ten dragon fruit plants which include the genera, Hylocereus,with its elongated and tri-flattened stems, and Selenicereus, with its cylindrical, very elongated stems. Both of these are found climbing sometimes to spectacular heights on our palm trees. They grow semi-epiphytically with their many short, brown aerial roots clinging to the trees and collecting the dew at night. These species originated in tropical America and have even been observed hanging onto cliffs on barren ocean islets near Panama.

Two species, Hylocereus polyrhizus and Selenicereus megalanthus, are promoted by an Australian nursery, Daley's Fruit Tree Nursery www.daleysfruit.com.au. Dragon fruit is also grown in the Northern Territory of Australia by Karlsson Tropical Fruits at 12°S. In Adelaide, South Australia, at 35° S, you can buy dragon fruits of Hylocereus undatus. In Adelaide, you can buy the fruits for $4 each, and in Vietnam, local dragon fruits sell for 25 cents each.

Sometimes these fruits, from Hylocereus polyrhizus, are called pitahayas. The article has a picture of a cut fruit that is red inside and that weighs over a pound. An ad is pictured with the phrases: “Red Dragon Fruit, I'm ideal for decoration and garnishing, Eat me fresh with lemon or lime juice, I'll store up to 3 weeks in the fridge, I have rich, deep red pulp inside, Use me as a base for drinks, Delicious with ice cream, I'm a great mixer with lemonade, Enjoy the world's latest fruit sensation.”

For home gardens, Harrisia pomanensis (H. bonplandii) is recommended by Gavin Hart because the plant is smaller and produces abundant although different fruit at a latitude similar to ours. This one is native to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The fruits are 5 cm in diameter and the flesh is white, crunchy and juicy with many small black seeds.
The website www.rarefruit.com/pitahayabook.html and e-mail will provide information from a California grower.

Curator’s Comments

By Gary Lyons

The activities over the summer included acquisition of a collection of cacti bequeathed to the Huntington Desert Garden by former Cactus and Succulent Society president, Virginia F. Martin, of Arcadia. She passed away last July and had assembled a collection of numerous cacti native to Mexico, some of which are documented. Virginia was one of my favorite people and she will be missed. In her quiet down to earth manner she was a no nonsense president and in my opinion one of the pillars in the CSSA. In November we planted most of her collection throughout the lower and central garden. They included astrophytum, mammillaria, coryphantha, thelocactus, golden barrels and several columnar cacti. Also we acquired several aloe species, mostly planted in the African section and a small Boojum Tree. The most notable acquisition is a beautiful six foot specimen of Bombax ellipticum, which has a smooth swollen trunk and is related to chorisia. It is planted on the west side of the Central Path in a location where it gets afternoon shade near a Palo Verde tree. Additionally, Virginia left her book collection to the CSSA library at the Huntington Botanical Center. Since Virginia had been trained as a librarian, she kept a careful record of each book she acquired. It is ironic that the last entry in her catalogue is my book on Desert Gardens!

You might notice that a stroll through the Desert Garden is a bit smoother than in the past. Last summer we resurfaced the entire length of the Central Path and did extensive patching on the smaller paths throughout the garden.

Also last summer we began clearing weed trees and vines from the southeast corner of the garden, which is not open to the public. This will add a lot of much needed space for planting. Also the clearing better defines the remaining Shorb ranch road Desert Fan palms and makes it easier to water and fertilize them. And the deodars along the Euston fence are now more accessible for irrigation and care.

The Desert Garden Survey, a project I have worked on periodically since 1965, is now being managed by Sean Lahmeyer. Until a few years ago Sean worked in the Desert Nursery under John Trager. The Survey project has been ongoing for years and so far it appears hopeful that a team approach to resolving the survey’s numerous pitfalls will get better results than in the past. Its primary focus is to record, including photograph, each plant’s location in the garden, record it in BGbase and BGmap, revise the hard copy records and order garden labels.

Last year’s heavy rains contributed to this year’s spectacular aloe display. In the African Section and below the Desert Conservatory look for a spectacular red and yellow flowering Kalanchoe mortagei, from Madagascar. It is a knockout! We might have it in one of our Spring plant sales.

Shadi Shihab, Head Gardener of Floristic Gardens, pruned and cleaned the old Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena draco) and the path that was closed to the public is now open. As usual, Shadi did a beautiful job. The Dragon’s Blood Tree is one of our oldest specimens. It was planted in its present location about 1912 and must date from the 1880’s.


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