Looking through the shelves at the supermarkets and pharmacies almost anywhere in the world you will see cosmetics and shampoos which are based on the aloe plant, a native of Africa. I spent some time in the late 1960s and 1970s travelling thousands of miles collecting the various types of aloe plant in South, Central and East Africa. The range of forms and flowers is enormous, from just a few inches high to spreading to solitary specimens several feet tall and bearing large spectacular spikes of flowers, glowing orange/red, scarlet or pure yellow in the clear light of desert fringes or the high veldt.
The aloe belongs to a great family called the Liliaceae, which includes onions, asparagus, crinum, daffodils, gloriosa, lilies, tulips and the Zephyrathus, the little yellow or pink wind flowers found growing so freely alongside the roads in the islands and even in parts of Georgetown. So the aloe belongs to a family of plants which has members of some economic importance as well as ornamental value, and is itself of some importance as well.
This is because it is used in the beauty industry.
I remember the aloe plant well from my childhood, for my mother used to tell me she would put bitter aloes on my finger nails if she ever caught me biting them. This is an apparently horrendous sensation which I was not game to try.
The main species of aloe used in cosmetic industries is Aloe vera, which was introduced to the West Indies some four hundred years ago, and became commercially important here, especially in the islands of Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire. There are, however, many more aloes of really outstanding garden value which you might have a go with if you have the space, for they are quite tolerant to salt air, dry conditions and bright sun, one of the most popular being the cushion type Aloe aristata.
Another group of plants which love the sun and are tolerant to salt air are the Sansevieria, or Bowstring hemps. Sansevieria have strong creeping underground stems which will colonize quite large areas if allowed to go unchecked. There are a surprisingly large number of them to be seen in and about Georgetown, and in fact throughout the region. Like the aloe it is an African plant and can be found from Cairo to Cape Town, it’s range is so vast.
The roots are strong enough to break even the strongest plastic pots, and even some of the less well-made concrete and clay pots. However, its redeeming features more than offset its disadvantages, and there are very many attractive forms to be found, several with attractive leaf markings like Sansevieria kirkii and some with cylindrical stems like Sansevieria cylindrica. Many are quite large and will grow to a height of three feet or a little more.
Others like Sansevieria hanni hug the ground and will form quite large clumps.
The third and last group of what may be described as drought-loving plants are the agaves.
The aloes and Sansevieria are African plants. The agaves are from the warmer parts of the American continent. These plants are not only tolerant of sun, dry conditions and salt air but are armed with very, very sharp points at the ends of the leaves. This device makes them very useful as a barrier against grazing cattle, stray dogs and stray humans as well. They are called the century plant This is because they live for a very long time and after several years – normally between ten or twenty years growth – they will quite suddenly throw up a long pole bearing flowers at the end, and sometimes even small plantlets. The variegated types are very popular in the islands, particularly Agave americana which is variegated with green and yellow leaves, and the beautiful blue leaved Agave franzosinnii which forms a very large and handsome plant up to five or six foot high. The common denominator in all these is their need for plenty of sunshine, fairly dry conditions, salt air tolerance and their low maintenance requirements.
Take care and may your God go with you wherever you are.