WHAT IS BAIKAN OR DHARAIK? CHINABERRY TREE - CULTURAL AND MEDICINAL SIGNIFICANCE
This tree is native to northern India, Pakistan, Myanmar and northern Australia. It was introduced into the US in the latter half of the 18th century as an ornamental and is now considered invasive in some states. Like the English yew tree and the aak and datura plants it is poisonous and should be treated with extreme care.
It is a sacred tree in Iran, Malaysia, India and Pakistan, and is revered like the Neem tree. The Baikan is a fast-growing shade tree, which doesn’t usually last for many more than twenty years.
Its timber can be used to make small items of furniture, and beams, but it rarely is, perhaps because it is considered to be sacred, rather like its “sister” the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). It grows extensively in Pakistan and India and is used by local people for its shade. To sit and gossip under, like the bohar or banyan tree, although this fast-growing tree does not reach such great heights or girths. Its leaves resemble those of the ash tree, but this chinaberry tree is a member of the mahogany family.
It has cherry-like green fruits which wrinkle and turn yellow when they mature, and as the leaves fall they are clearly seen, the hanging drupes, await small boys who play marbles with them and then pelt each other with them if an argument ensues. These fruits are called tarkona in Punjabi, while the tree is called dharaik. It is bakain in Urdu. In English it is known as the Ceylon Cedar, the Persian Lilac tree, Pride of India and the Bead tree.
It got the name bead tree, because when the pulp is boiled away from the 5 seeds it hides, the seeds have round holes in their middles, which are just right to make necklaces, prayer beads (tespih) bangles and earrings.
Even though the tree’s parts are poisonous medical preparations are prepared by the traditional healers, or hakims, who know exactly what they are doing. The leaves and flowers are used to relieve nervous headaches, applied in a poultice, while the leaves, bark and fruit are natural insect repellants. The oil extracted from the seeds is used for rheumatism, and extract of the bark is given for asthma. A decoction of the leaves is used to treat skin problems such as eczema, acne and ulcers as they have antiseptic qualities.
The berries produce a highly inflammable gas which gives a clear light, and the roots produce oil which can also be used for lighting. The hakims use the oil to promote hair growth and it is applied to bald spots.
Medical research has proved it to have antiviral properties, and to be good at ridding the body of tapeworms. The antiviral properties come from the meliacine extracted from the leaves. Extracts from the tree have also shown that it can be used as an alternative to pharmaceutical medication for the HSV-2 genital infection. It may even have anti-cancer properties, but this is far from conclusive as yet.
Despite the poisonous nature of this tree, it has health benefits for us, but it should nonetheless be treated with due care and respect.