If, like me you’ve never heard of this tree before, you are forgiven. It grows in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and other parts of Asia. It is believed to have originated in Myanmar and Assam, in north eastern India. Its botanical name is Azadirachta indica, derived from the following sources: - azad, meaning free, dirackht meaning tree and indica, referring to India, so it’s the free tree of India. It belongs to the Meliacaea family of trees so is related to mahogany, and is easily carved into small boxes, toys and large chests for storing clothes. It is good for this purpose as it is a natural insect repellant.
In fact it is good for many things and modern medical research has agreed with Ayurvedic practitioners on the whole about its usefulness. The neem tree can live for 150 to 200 years, and every village has or had one. It was called the ‘village pharmacy’ as it cures many illnesses. Ancient Hindus believed that if they planted a neem tree it ensured them a gateway to heaven. They believed that it got its amazing properties because a few drops of heavenly nectar fell on it. It is used in around 75% of all Ayurvedic remedies, which use its leaves, bark, seeds and oil. Babies were laid on neem leaves to protect them from evil, and they were hung over cradles. They were also bathed in neem water and given small doses of neem oil on a daily basis. Brides bathe in baths of neem-infused water, and the smoke from the burning branches is wafted into rooms to purify them. The white flowers and the wood from the tree have a wonderful fragrance, apparently.
The neem tree is associated with snake cults as well as the goddess of smallpox, Sithala, who makes her home in them. The great goddess Kali is believed to dwell on the tree and stones representing her may be set in front of the tree and worshipped. The sacred neem tree is important to Hindus.
The bitter tasting leaves are eaten on New Year’s Day (Ugadhi) along with misri (rock candy) symbolizing acceptance of both the good and bad events that will occur during the coming year. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi ate a pickle made with the leaves of the neem, but no one else seems to eat them, as they are too bitter. However it is believed that in ancient times the leaves were cooked and eaten like spinach. Sap from the tree is sometimes made into an alcoholic drink. The gum from the bark is also used to make an adhesive for traditional Indian murals. This starts off a dark amber colour, but blackens with age. The bark produces a fibre which is woven into rope, and the oil is used for sweet smelling lighting fuel, while the wood is also used for fires. It also makes good charcoal. The timber is used to make boats and in other constructions, so it has many uses apart from medicinal.
It has been proven to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, antiseptic, anti-diabetic properties as well as being a blood-purifying agent and a spermicidal (natural birth control).It is good for the hair, skin, immune system, and lowers cholesterol, so preventing, or reducing, the risk of heart disease. There are high hopes that it will be effective in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and cancer treatments. It is a true cure all.
Here in Pakistan people use neem for other purposes too. If they roll up their carpets in summer, they put neem leaves and tobacco in them to stop insects nesting in them. They say the bark is good to clean the teeth, and an infusion can help gums and teeth. If you boil neem leaves you can clean wounds, and use as a skin tonic. It is indeed a versatile tree.