When most people hear the words “Aloe Vera,” their minds go right to one simple image … a succulent, deep green in color with jagged, cactus like leaves emerging from the dirt.
In reality; however, Aloe Vera is an entire species of plant …
Evolved over tens of thousands of years, some 550 total variations can be found growing naturally across the remote Eastern Coast of Africa, and up into the Middle East. Some resemble the simple plants we know, while others twist and turn with bright hues of purple. Some bear bright, exotic flowers while others look more earthy and bland. Some grow virtually anywhere while others are limited to a few key habitats, and each species bears its own subtle differences from the rest.
And their often remote location has been a complicating factor for ongoing Aloe Vera research.
That is—until now.
“I don’t know of any places really that have such a big collection of aloes in cultivation,” said Emma Bodley, conservation specialist for Auckland, New Zealand’s Botanical Gardens.
Emma, and the Gardens, have recently come into possession of a veritable treasure trove of Aloe Vera plant; some 400 different species of the plant delivered in various quantities and stages of growth.
Where did it all come from?
Believe it or not, this massive cache of Aloe Vera—almost a living record of the plant as a species—started with just one New Zealander and his “hobby.”
Gardens of the World
After selling the majority of his healthy orchard, Geoff was left with just 2.4 hectares of growing space and a singular drive to never see another apple tree again. So instead, Geoff and his wife embarked along a completely different path—developing their remaining land into the impressive, diverse natural attraction now known as Gardens of the World.
While cultivating such a wide variety of exotic plants, Geoff found the perfect opportunity to grow his Aloe collection even more. Over time it soared to epic proportions, and when the couple sold their lucrative business and moved on in 2008, Geoff’s massive collection went with him.
Geoff provided interviews from his new greenhouse, highlighting the widely varying attributes of the different Aloe variants, “Half have stems and half don’t … some grow into trees … and one or two aren’t so friendly.”
His collection contained plants from Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Yemen, Somalia and Zimbabwe—along with a great number from the island nation of Madagascar.
Whether he realized it or not, Etherington had cultivated what is now regarded to be the single best collection of Aloes in the world—a veritable “Library of Alexandria” for research of the plant.
The Gift of a Lifetime
Before Etherington passed away, he bequeathed his collection of aloes to the Auckland Botanical Gardens—finding them the best-suited to nurture and grow his one-of-a-kind collection.
And he was careful to pass on not just the plants, but the lifetime of unique knowledge he’d accumulated while living with his collection. He taught the Society’s staff plenty of “cool tricks,” including how to quickly identify different species by their defining characteristics, and his own special method for painstakingly pollinating his plants by hand.
From a scientific perspective, his collection and his methods represent decades of important foundational research, and it’s incredible news to hear that he’s passed it on effectively and efficiently—and at a time when Aloe research is more important than ever before.
The Botanical Gardens’ staff immediately realized the value of what they call an “amazing” resource for research, with numerous staff members fascinated by the prospect of learning more about the plants.
“We’ve learned a lot about where they come from and how they’re used,” explains Bodley, “it’s been a great learning curve for the staff here. Everyone’s excited to learn more about them.”
It’s a wonderful story, a tremendous legacy, and a testament to Etherington’s unflinching dedication to a hobby that one news reporter called “weird and wonderful.” What some might have seen as a gardener’s obsession has grown into one of the world’s most important sources for scientific research.
We can’t wait to see what comes of it …