Neem - The Village Pharmacy
For centuries, the Neem tree has been known in India as ‘Heal all’ or the ‘Village Pharmacy’ due to its many and varied healing properties. Since the advent of synthetic insecticides and the promotion of conventional medicines this important natural resource has been sadly neglected. However, over the last few decades, the Neem tree has enjoyed a revival, being rediscovered by the people of India where it is now the centre of a thriving industry, producing goods ranging from cosmetics and medicines to natural insecticides.
The medicinal use of Neem has its origins in antiquity. It is said to have been used in India for over 4000 years, being mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. The word Neem is derived from the Sanskrit name ‘Nimba’ which means ‘to bestow good health’. Neem has many other names in Sanskrit which reflect some of these therapeutic properties, such as ‘Neta’, leader of medicinal plants or ‘Arishta’, insect resistant. One of the best-known traditional uses of Neem is as nature’s toothbrush. Neem twigs can still be bought in India at local markets. You chew the end of a Neem twig to splay out the fibres which can then be used to clean the teeth.
Neem is central to the traditional Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, and is said to be an ingredient in up to 50% of Ayurvedic preparations. The roots, leaves, bark, flowers and fruit are all important in Ayurvedic practice and each has its own distinct therapeutic properties. A rich oil can be extracted from the seeds of the olive-like fruit from the Neem tree. This oil is a natural antiseptic, antifungal and wound healing agent and has been used for treating skin conditions ranging from ringworm to abscesses. Neem leaves, prepared as infusions or decoctions, were used to treat skin conditions, for inflammation and even for snakebites. Neem flowers and bark are used to relieve various conditions from bleeding gums to coughing.
Neem leaves kept between the folds of woollen or silk clothing is claimed to protect them from insects.
The Neem tree was rediscovered in 1959 when a German scientist witnessed a locust swarm in Sudan. After the swarm had passed the only tree left untouched by the locusts was a Neem tree. On closer investigation it was concluded that the locusts did indeed land on Neem trees, but they always left without feeding. Since this discovery, there has been worldwide scientific interest in Neem and intense research into its many properties. As a result, we now know that the Neem tree contains many natural active ingredients which make it resistant not only to locusts but also to more than three hundred different types of insect, as well as fungi, bacteria, and even viruses. These chemical defences are not only useful in protecting Neem trees but can also be used as the basis for natural medicines.
The Neem tree is now providing solutions to local problems. The Neem Mission was established in India in 1976 to promote the use of Neem oil for the village-scale production of Neem soap, which is now an established household item in India. Research by international researchers led to the discovery of the powerful insecticide, Azadirachtin. As a result of this discovery Neem oil has now established itself as the source of natural insecticides for the protection of agricultural crops against insect pests. Many of the products of this industry are now exported worldwide providing a valuable source of income for the economy.
Neem provides countless other benefits to rural communities in India. For example Neem is an excellent shade tree and there is said to be a grove of 50,000 Neem trees outside Mecca to provide shade to pilgrims. All parts of the Neem tree can be useful, e.g. Neem mulch, a by-product of oil production, which can be used as a fertiliser. Neem is still collected from wild-grown trees and is collected by hand, which provides work for rural communities.