Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens 1445 Millcoe Road, Jacksonville, FL 32225  

Photo: Aloe maculata


Photo: Hamamelis virginia

Sometimes while I stand in the bathroom brushing my teeth, I look at the bottles and tubes I’ve accumulated. They promise wonderful things like making me glowingly beautiful or preserving the vestiges of my fleeting youth. It’s a little comical, because I’d really be happy just to not have chapped lips in the winter or a farmer’s tan all summer. Whether your skin-care regimen is an elaborate ritual or an afterthought, it’s interesting to think about how many of these products start as plants.

Cultural differences aside, people have been using plants to look and feel better pretty much forever. Perhaps a Neolithic woman noticed how many shaggy heads she could turn after her lips were stained from eating berries. That is not a scientific fact, but I wish it was. (If you’re curious about plants used in antiquity, here’s an article I found that was loaded with interesting tidbits.)

The things we use today are pretty elaborate and sometimes far-removed from their plant origins. Today products like sunscreen, moisturizers and cosmetics are formulated in labs, tested extensively and mass-produced to be as profitable as the market will allow. All that aside, I still remember my mom using a black tea bag on my gums to stop the bleeding after I’d pulled a tooth. And even today, when I get a little too much sun, I just break off an aloe leaf (Aloe maculata) and the cooling, green watery insides really seem to soothe the burn. (The prickly edges of the leaf not so much).

Another common plant that’s used as a beauty product is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). I’ve seen that growing at the arboretum and recall when I’ve used the liquid decoction as an astringent to clear away oil and dirt from my skin. You can still find it easily at grocery and drugstores-it’s usually near the peroxide and rubbing alcohol. I remember witch hazel being super gentle and pretty cheap – and it’s good for diaper rash, poison ivy and sunburns too.

Now that I’m a little older, I find that my skin seems to want more moisturizing. (There’s probably a connection between too much sun then and needing moisturizing now-I should have listened to you, mom!) If you’re hoping to slow the ravages of time, consider looking for anti-aging treatments that have Okinawa hibiscus (Hibiscus makinoi) in them. I also noticed that many of my go-to moisturizers have shea butter as a main ingredient. I’ve even seen big blobs of pure shea butter for sale at flea markets and ethnic shops. Turns out that shea butter is made from the oily nut of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), which is native to central Africa.

There are thousands of other plants that are used for skin care and beauty, and many of them grow right here in north Florida. Right here at the Arboretum, you can see aloe in the pollinator garden, the hibiscus on the north side of the Lake Loop trail and the witch hazel along several different trails. You could almost think of your bathroom cabinet as containing a jungle! Some plants may go through myriad chemical changes before finding their way into those bottles and tubes, but others I can obtain myself with a quick trip to the backyard. Either way, I try to appreciate that someone had to preserve that knowledge for modern times, and someone else had to grow and harvest it, and still others had to refine it. Read some labels and see what you can find.

by Angela Chene