Neem, or Indian Lilac is one of the world’s most prized trees. Also called Azadirachta indica, it is grown primarily in India, but also in Pakistan, and recently has been exported in very high quantities to the US and Europe. Indians have used this miracle plant for centuries. It is an evergreen tree that naturally grows throughout the central dry climate, which offers its bark, leaves, flowers, seeds and fruit for the curing of numerous ailments.
Many Names, but More Uses
It has been named in countless Ayurvedic texts by its Sanskrit name, Nimba, as an antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory salve. It can be used instead of pesticide and on everything from warts to small-pox, as well as skin disorders such as eczema and acne. It helps protect soils and crops, and babies born in Indian in the 6th century were even bathed in it, while its leaves were hung over their infant beds. Its uses are almost countless, and with recent interest in this wonder-herb, its sales to foreign interests have almost quintupled.
Gathering Neem Oil
Neem oil is referred to in several Sanskrit writings, including the Charaka Samhita, Susrutha Samhita and Brihat Samhita. It is actually called ‘the curer of all illnesses.’ Muslims call the plant, Shajar-e-Mubarak, or ‘the blessed tree.’ In times past neem oil was extracted by special ‘oilmen’ called teli. It was a tradition taken very seriously, and was exacting. Seeds were ground onto a wooden plank with a mortar and pestle style action in order to extract the oil. It was then collected in a bamboo pipe, which was inserted at the base of the mortar, to collect the accumulated oil.
14 Million Trees Strong
Along with the coconut palm and bamboo tree, there are few other trees, which are as versatile as the neem tree. Understandably, with such a long tradition of neem use, and very specific practices of its collection, Indians are protective of the plants, and somewhat wary of Western interest in the tree. The neem tree has been called a national treasure and means to protect it have been underway for years. Although the neem tree grows in profusion in India, with more than 14 million trees currently growing across the subcontinent, it still may need protection.
Since villagers that utilize neem oil, bark, leaves, and seeds are well aware of the techniques to extract neem’s best qualities, it does not require expensive manufacturing equipment. This has been part of the draw to the plant, but also part of the concern since the West has had access to this millenia-old healing plant for little or now cost, and with little regulation of collection practices.
The Chemical Properties of Neem
Many of the healing properties derived from the neem tree are due to its chemical makeup. It has innumerable chemical compounds that cause it to be a healing plant, but primarily, it is valuable due to the presence of a chemical called azadirachtin. This compound has astringent qualities that can be used in numerous medicines, to treat leprosy, ulcers, hepatitius, constipation, and more.
Other uses of neem include the use the plant as a dental antiseptic, in fact many rural Indians will chew on a neem twig to clean their teeth. It can also be used as a soap, and even as contraception, since it is thought to be 100% effective at preventing pregnancy when used vaginally prior to intercourse, as a very potent spermicide. It has also been used by India’s holy men, who wish to decrease their sexual desire.
Neem can also be used as both fuel and timber. Like bamboo, neem is a fast growing wood, but it is a hardwood so it lends itself to construction projects well. The pulp of the neem fruit is used to create methane gas and neem oil is often used in oil lamps.
Neem is even used in forestry and agriculture. Neem cake, the remaining residue of neem seeds after the oil has been extracted from them, is often given to livestock to decrease sores and infections and the leaves of the neem tree are used to feed livestock as a means of increasing their fertility.
This amazing plant also acts as one of the most potent insecticides known to man, without causing the harmful cancers and other diseases linked to the pesticides created by companies like Monsato and Bayer. It kills over 200 types of insects, from nematodes to mosquitoes, locusts, beetles and boll weevils, just to name a few. As more Westerners become knowledgeable about the harmful chemical pesticide use in their country and its damaging affects on crops and soil quality, there will likely be an even larger interest in plants like neem. Many organic farmers already rely on the plant for natural pest control.
Neem is also now used in cosmetics, including very expensive brands sold in the US and Europe for over $100 an ounce. Perhaps people are willing to pay for this wonder-herb due to its amazing qualities, but the pure oil can be purchased for a fraction of that cost and made into home remedies varying from acne treatments to lotions and moisturizers meant to be used prior to putting other cosmetics on the skin.
Another disease which neem seem to counteract quite effectively is called Chagas. It occurs all over South and Central America and there is no cure for it. It is caused by a parasite called the kissing bug, and neem seems to be the only effective way to stop it thus far. Over 18 million people suffer form this disease.
Neem as a World Wide Healer
Over the past 70 years neem has been researched extensively to understand more of its healing properties. It began with the movements, which Gandhi inspired to boycott the Foreign Goods Movement that encouraged the development and manufacture of products like neem, to be sold to foreign countries. Since you cannot patent agricultural and medicinal products by Indian law, neem may need to be protected by its citizens when big companies start sniffing around, intent on large-scale manufacturing. Blatant commercialization of this wonder-tree would be profanation of a plant that has been used by Ayurvedic practitioners, yogis and Holi men, women and babies and countless Indians for literally thousands of years. The US pesticide market is worth at least $900 billion so it is frightening to imagine what could happen if the neem trees in India were not protected and mindfully used for a world-wide epidemic of greed.
Are multinational companies or the people of the world going to benefit more from the use of Neem? If a synthetic version of azadirachtin is created, as is the normal tactic of people wanting to make a quick buck, it won’t have the same qualities as the natural plant, but it would be patentable. Instead of greed-based commercialization of this tree’s wonderful healing traditions, perhaps seed sharing and cultivation of neem in other parts of the world can be India’s gift to the people, instead of lining the coffers of the corporations. Neem, after all, was once just a household herb, used in everyday life in India, but known to have a myriad positive qualities by the villager who utilized the plant.
India deserves to be paid for its intellectual knowledge, partly because it is thousands of years in the making, but also because it has proven responsible stewardship of the trees themselves for a long expanse of history. Neem teas, topical creams, ointments, and oils could be made in India and exported, but ideally, the cultivation of the plant itself could become a worldwide legacy. It is my hope that as more people discover the benefits of the plant, that they will also support the responsible cultivation of neem trees so that many future generations can benefit from this gift from nature. If nations across the world were to share botanical knowledge (like that of the neem tree’s many healing properties) instead of commercialize it, we would all be healthier and happier as a whole. India has shown it can usher positive change in many arenas, from religious tolerance to political change, so why not the cultivation of millions more neem trees to help cure disease, and protect our food sources.