We will often come across mothers making children wear the fine, thin Neem twigs in their newly pierced earlobe as they know that this would prevent the holes from closing and act as antiseptic too.
Across the Indian subcontinent, we find the rural people peel off the bark of the twig and then chew it so that it becomes like a soft brush , which they then use to rub around their gums and teeth.
Native to India and Burma, neem is a botanical cousin of mahogany. It is tall and spreading like an oak and bears masses of honey-scented white flowers like a locust. Its complex foliage resembles that of walnut or ash, and its swollen fruits look much like olives. It is seldom leafless, and the shade it imparts throughout the year is a major reason why it is prized in India. We happen to throw in a few Neem leaves here and there in our bookshelves and put them inside old books to prevent silverfish and other bugs from eating paper.
Neem is a tall, usually evergreen. It is widely cultivated in tropical Asian countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar for its timber, resin, bitter bark, and aromatic seed oil, which is used medicinally and as an insecticide.
The tree has small white flowers and produces a smooth, yellow-green fruit. All parts of the tree have medical uses. In India, neem is sometimes called “the village pharmacy.” Over 100 pharmacologically active substances have been identified in this plant, and it has many traditional applications.
A Brief History
The earliest documentation of neem mentioned the fruit, seeds, oil, leaves, roots and bark for their advantageous medicinal properties. These benefits are listed in the ancient documents ‘Carak- Samhita’ and ‘Susruta-Samhita’, the books at the foundation of the Indian system of natural treatment, Ayurveda. Neem has a garlic-like odor, and a bitter taste. The various parts of this tree have many uses that aptly give neem its name in Sanskrit-”sarva roga nivarini’, meaning ‘the curer of all ailments’.
‘Hikmat’ or the ‘Unani’ (Arabic for ‘Greek’) is a formal medicine that has been practiced for 6,000 years. It was developed by the Greek physician Hippocrates (40 – 370 B.C.) from the medicine and traditions of the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This system makes tremendous use of Neem as a pesticide, in medicines, oils, soaps, ointments and toothpastes.
Beyond all the possible pesticides and pharmaceuticals, neem provides many useful and valuable commonplace materials. For instance, oil extracted from the seeds goes into soaps, waxes, and lubricants, as well as into fuels for lighting and heating. The solid residue left after the oil is removed from the kernels is employed as a fertilizer and soil amendment. In addition, wood from the trees is valued for construction, cabinetry, and fuel. The bark is tapped for gum and extracted for tannins and dental-care products. The leaves are sometimes used for emergency livestock feed. And the profuse flowers are a prized source of honey. Although the possibilities seem almost endless, some of the most common uses of neem have been enumerated below:-
- Neem oil is extracted from the seeds of the neem tree and has insecticidal and medicinal properties due to which it has been used for thousands of years in pest control, cosmetics, medicines, etc. Please see neem oil & its uses for detailed information.
- Neem seed cake (residue of neem seeds after oil extraction) when used for soil amendment or added to soil, not only enriches the soil with organic matter but also lowers nitrogen losses by inhibiting nitrification. It also works as a nematicide.
- Neem leaves are used to treat chickenpox and warts by directly applying to the skin in a paste form or by bathing in water with neem leaves. In order to increase immunity of the body, neem leaves are also taken internally in the form of neem capsules or made into a tea. The tea is traditionally taken internally to reduce fever caused by malaria. This tea is extremely bitter. It is also used to soak feet for treating various foot fungi. It has also been reported to work against termites. In Ayurveda, neem leaves are used in curing neuromuscular pains. Neem leaves are also used in storage of grains.
- Twigs of neem are also used in India and Africa as toothbrushes. Nowadays toothpastes with neem extracts are also available commercially.
- Neem (leaf and seed) extracts have been found to be spermicidal and thus research is being conducted to use neem extracts for making contraceptives. Neem produces pain relieving, anti-inflammatory and fever reducing compounds that can aid in the healing of cuts, burns, earaches, sprains and headaches, as well as fevers.
- Neem bark and roots also have medicinal properties. Bark & roots in powdered form are also used to control fleas & ticks on pets.
- Neem has anti-bacterial properties that help in fighting against skin infections such as acne, psoriasis, scabies, eczema, etc. Neem extracts also help in treating diabetes, AIDS, cancer, heart disease, herpes, allergies, ulcers, hepatitis and several other diseases.
A Saudi philanthropist planted a forest of 50,000 neems to shade and comfort the two million pilgrims who camp each year on the Plains of Arafat (a holy place where the prophet Muhammad is said to have bidden farewell to his followers).
And in the last decade neem has been introduced into the Caribbean, where it is being used to help reforest several nations. Neem is already a major tree species in Haiti, for instance.