Commonly, “Aloe Vera” is used as a catch all term for all Aloes…when it’s really just one species. It probably doesn’t matter a whole lot, and maybe it’s kinda nit picky to need to point out the differences and that “some kind of aloe vera” is IMO not very helpful when someone asks for an ID of their plant…except when you start getting into the medicinal stuff about Aloe vera. I personally don’t use it, but you can’t scroll through anything related to Aloes without coming across some product or health page touting the benefits, and it really just seems dangerous to me how many of them use photos of other plants. Other Aloes, hybrids, Haworthia, even Agave. Part of that is the free stock photo sites they get their photos from, if you look through the photos tagged with Aloe or Aloe vera at least half are other plants. But really, companies should know what they are selling, and pages talking about the health benefits should know the differences, too. It’s irresponsible in my opinion, especially since some Aloes are toxic, and Agaves are too. If you buy a plant intending to use it either topically or to eat the gel, definitely make sure you have the right plant and find the right way to process it. I can’t help with that last part, but I can help you with identification. Definitely don’t use a plant just because of this article, continue to do a lot of research on the subject and be very careful. Not all Aloe is vera!
First off, I’m gonna pick apart the name some people use. A lot of advice articles and videos will say things like “the plant aloe vera gel comes from is Aloe barbadensis miller”, or even say the name is “Aloe vera barbadensis var. miller.” That last one makes my head hurt lol! The current accepted scientific name of the plant is Aloe vera. It was formerly Aloe barbadensis, Miller was the last name of the person who described it, not a variety. It doesn’t need to be attached to the name of the plant, that’s just adding more complication to an already complicated subject. Barbadensis has been considered an incorrect name because someone else (Nicolaas Laurens Burman) described it as Aloe vera first, and also the plant is not “of Barbados” as the name suggests. No one’s real sure of the exact origin of the plant, but the Arabian Peninsula is considered most likely. It seems like they use barbadensis or barbadensis miller mostly to differentiate between Aloe vera and the plant commonly called Aloe vera var. chinensis…which isn’t an accepted name either, and really isn’t even Aloe vera. I’ll do an article on that one next.
On to identification. Aloe vera is described as a stemless, suckering species with mostly upright grey-green leaves. Spotted when young, but quickly loses its spots as it matures, with yellow flowers that are densely packed on the bloom stalk. It has simple teeth spaced out on the edges of the leaves. Growing in low light can make identification of Aloe plants difficult, as it doesn’t allow them to grow normally. Two other very common Aloe species are Aloe arborescens and Aloe maculata. Both are said to have medicinal properties as well, with some sources claiming edibility and some saying topical only – similar to Aloe vera in that way, anyway, but again…don’t use these plants based on my article. I only know what I read, and it seems every site has a different answer. Aloe maculata is commonly called Soap Aloe because the gel can be used as (or made into) soap. Growth habits of the two are both very different. Aloe arborescens is never spotted, there are many varieties and hybrids of it but the most common one forms a large, dense bush of offsets and blooms red, the flower gives it the common name of Torch Aloe. The teeth are hooked and the lighter green leaves spread out and tend to curve. There is a yellow blooming variety, but neither the plant or the shape of the inflorescence is similar to Aloe vera.
Aloe maculata is a somewhat difficult species to identify correctly. There are many species and hybrids that are similar, and generally you need a bloom to ID it. It’s said to be variable, but I think hybrids and people misidentifying their plants account for that variability, personally. But then again, I’m just a backyard collector and not a real expert. I do not have Aloe maculata, I have a similar plant that is a hybrid of it. Aloe maculata x grandidentata grows larger than maculata, and the bloom shape is different, but it has the same general appearance otherwise. Aloe maculata is supposed to have a flat inflorescence, my plant’s blooms are not flat (and it’s also huge.) So let’s just say spotted Aloe instead of maculata here, even though that’s probably the most common, what you have may not even be maculata. These are low growing, stemless, suckering, usually distinctly spotted plants. The leaves are broad and generally curve towards the tips, not usually very upright unless it’s stressed and the plant is curling its leaves up to protect itself. The teeth are large, sharp, and usually hooked on the ones I’ve seen, as well as usually having a kind of distinct brown spot at the tip. Leaf tips dying back is super common with these species, any bit of stress and that leaf tip is gonna start to shrivel. Palmbob wrote a great article on the Spotted Aloes for the Dave’s Garden website that’s worth checking out.
Alright, so those were a few examples of plants that are commonly mixed up with Aloe vera. Other photos I often see used in “Aloe Vera” ads include different Agaves, Gasteraloes, Alworthia ‘Black Gem’, Gonialoe variegata, and sometimes Haworthia or Gasteria. A couple great sources of photos of different plant species (and hybrids) are the Agaveville forum galleries and the San Marcos Growers website plant index. Facebook groups that are genus-specific (Aloe, Gasteria, Agave, etc) are also good. Googling for photos and information…it used to be great. Now about all I can find is misinformation, ads and Pinterest links. Google with caution, I guess. Knowing the correct scientific name for your plant is helpful so you can learn it’s growing conditions and needs, and it’s definitely important if you have interest in the medicinal stuff. Just ask the woman who made the video of herself eating (or trying to eat) an Agave leaf because she thought it was an Aloe vera leaf!