Aloe vera: the thorny balm

The spiky Aloe vera plant is a favourite of Caribbean gardens, its bitter gel used as a moisturiser, stomach remedy, and ingredient in healthy tonics. You might imagine you could build a whole industry around this handy plant — and Aruba has done just that. Shelly-Ann Inniss visits the island’s biggest aloe farm, and learns how this wonder of the kitchen and medicine cabinet is an economic wonder, too

Fields of spiky Aloe vera in Hato, Aruba. Photo by Jimmyvillalta/iStock.com

“Go out in the garden and cut some aloes” are dreaded words for many Caribbean children. Aloe’s bitter taste is enough to prove that all your facial muscles really work.

Aloe vera is literally a pharmacy in a plant. Its gel contains seventy-five minerals and eighteen amino acids and vitamins. For centuries it has been used medicinally, including as a moisturiser, to treat burns and skin conditions, for hair loss, acne, and endless other purposes.

Many backyards in the Caribbean have a plant. Of course, you’ll find the occasional person growing aloe merely for decorative purposes. But it’s commonly used as a laxative, or to aid with digestion. In Barbados, where I grew up, parents and grandparents rub it on the hands of children to discourage them from sucking their fingers. There’s even an old legend about keeping it in the kitchen to guard against evil. Some people mix it with citrus or mango juice, but that barely masks the cutting bitterness. And these days, do-it-yourself aficionados are experimenting and creating charming cosmetic inventions as well.

One plant with so many uses should make aloe a way of life — and, in Aruba, it already is. A drive around the island reveals that Aruba is one of the driest places in the Caribbean. Cacti grow haphazardly and at times form natural residential fences. Even the country’s highest point, called the Hay Stack, is covered in cacti and succulent plants. One of these species is a gem in plain sight.

In the 1920s, two thirds of the island were covered with “lily of the desert” — an old name for the aloe — and to commemorate the plant as one of Aruba’s first sources of substantial income, aloe appears on the country’s coat of arms. While other islands around the Caribbean exported sugar, bananas, coffee, cocoa, citrus, nutmeg, and other crops, Aruba was steadily cultivating aloe and successfully distributing aloe-based products around the globe — aptly earning the name Island of Aloes.

The aloe industry here dates back to the eighteenth century, when Mon Plaisir and Socotoro were the largest producers. In more recent years, houses and buildings have replaced many aloe fields, leaving a sole remaining plantation in Hato, on the northern outskirts of Oranjestad — the legacy of an enterprising businessman from more than a century ago.

In 1890, Cornelis Eman purchased a dusty plot of land in Hato, burned by the sun and battered by strong winds, but perfect for growing aloe. Eman saw the value of the plant, and set about to produce aloe commercially. By 1905, his company Aruba Aloe Balm NV was the biggest producer of aloin (the yellow substance located just below the outer skin of the plant), then mainly used as a laxative, and sold to international pharmaceutical companies via Curaçao.

According to Dr Koos Veel, current managing director of Aruba Aloe, thirty per cent of the world’s aloe was produced by the Aruba Aloe factory back in those days — a huge achievement for a little company on a tiny Caribbean island. When demand from pharmaceutical companies diminished — because the Aruba factory was their direct competition for processed medicinal products — the Eman family got creative. Cornelius’s son Jani had the foresight to embark on the cosmetic side of aloe production. Aruba Aloe Balm became one of the first companies in the world to manufacture cosmetic products made from the aloe gel, launching its first line in 1968, before the rest of the world followed suit in the late 1970s. And to this day, Aruba Aloe continues to grow the plant and produce and package their products onsite in Hato.

 

Aloe has been used cosmetically for over 3,500 years, due to its healing powers. It’s said that Cleopatra herself used it as a sun-protectant. The next time you go cosmetic shopping, check the label. You’ll find aloin or a variation of aloe extract on many ingredient labels. In 1990, the Cosmetic, Fragrance, and Toiletry Association —  now called the Personal Care Products Council — stated that aloe is by far the most popular cosmetic and toiletry ingredient in the United States. It’s certainly true in Aruba as well, where many local products contain pure Aloe vera gel.

If you visit the Aloe Balm headquarters — home to the Aloe Museum and Factory — you can observe the entire process, from the cutting of the leaf to the final product on the shelf. Free tours are available in English, Dutch, Spanish, Papiamento, and Portuguese — a great outing for the entire family. The museum houses antique aloe tools, equipment, and machinery, and is also furnished with a library covering the history, manufacture, and healthy qualities of Aloe vera.

Aruba Aloe’s first onsite retail store opened in 2000, and has since expanded to sixteen locations throughout the island, stocking over two hundred different products. No stranger to accomplishments, in 2016 Aruba Aloe won an international award for a soap called Dream. Working with a distributor in Florida, Aruba Aloe exports to Central and South America, the United States, Europe, Africa, plus several Caribbean countries. Soldiers in Iraq even use one of its products, called Alhydran, for burns.

There are several wonders of the world, and I’m a strong believer that aloe is one of them. This one plant is able to diversify an economy, with opportunities in education, health care, light manufacturing, and tourism. There’s even a month dedicated to the plant: the Happy Island, through the Aruba Tourism Authority, will host Aloe Wellness Month in June.

So if you find yourself in Aruba and overdo it in the blazing sun, you’ll know where to look for relief — that “lily of the desert” that Caribbean households have depended on for generations.