The neem plant is a fast-growing and long-lasting broad-leaved evergreen tree. It is native to the Indian subcontinent, and from there it has been widely introduced to the rest of the world. Today it is present in the tropical and subtropical zones of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and the South Pacific Islands.
Originating from the Siwalik Hills of Burma, the neem is found almost all over India. This is mainly due to certain beliefs held by ancient Indians, such as that the presence of a neem plant in the house ensured a safe passage to heaven, or that its leaves strung on the doorway warded off evil spirits. It was common practice in those days for brides to bathe in water filled with neem leaves. Newly born babies were laid upon beds made of neem leaves since they were believed to have a protective aura. These practices came about due to the neem being mentioned in various texts of Hindu mythology. The plant was revered because it was supposedly an embodiment of the goddess Sitala. In fact, its therapeutic properties were explained away as the result of a few drops of heavenly nectar that fell upon it.
Neem is a member of the mahogany family Meliaceae and is known by the botanic name Azadirachta indica. Another of its names is Margosa. In India, it’s known as Nimba and popularly referred to as the ‘miracle tree’. It is hugely popular to this day thanks to the various uses and benefits provided by its bark, flowers and leaves. For centuries they have been used in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and medicinal cures. Here we list some of the reasons as to why the Neem plant is so essential:
Neem leaves and their benefits
Readily available year-round, neem leaves boost the respiratory system, improve digestion, and strengthen the immune system. They also support the liver by getting rid of unwanted toxins in the blood.
Neem leaves boiled in water help in clearing acne, scars, pigmentation and blackheads. Additionally, they also leave the skin soft and supple.
Neem leaves are dried and burnt to keep away mosquitoes. They also act as a natural pesticide. Dried leaves protect rice kept in containers and clothes kept in drawers from insects.
Drinking water infused with neem leaves controls high blood sugar. The leaves help to dilate blood vessels impeding blood coagulation, decrease elevated heart rates and relax erratic heartbeats. This is due to the presence of antihistamine compounds in them, and as a result, neem leaves keep a check on high blood pressure levels.
Neem oil and its benefits
By far the most popular neem plant product, neem oil is a non-culinary vegetable oil produced by pressing the seeds and fruit of the neem plant.
Neem oil is known for its ability to increase hair growth due to its high level of antioxidants. It also protects the scalp from damage caused by free radicals.
Neem oil is used in many skin care products such as soaps, shampoos, lotions and creams. It is a natural antiseptic, antifungal and is used in the treatment of various skin conditions such as eczema, dry skin, psoriasis and ringworm acne.
It is popular with gardeners because it is a natural insect repellant and a safe, effective insecticide.
Neem oil also serves as a safe and effective flea repellant when it is rubbed into the coats of cats and dogs.
Upon extracting neem oil from the seeds, we are left with a pulp that is known as ‘neem cake’. This is commonly used as a soil amendment and fertilizer, while its edible properties see it used as animal fodder sometimes as well.
Neem oil is also an effective counter to mosquitoes. Odours of crushed neem seeds and unaltered neem oil lead to the suppression of egg laying in mosquitoes.
The oil is used regularly in massages. It relieves muscle aches and pains and helps alleviate lower back pain and rheumatism.
Neem bark and its benefits
The bark of the neem tree has a rich concentration of ingredients with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It is used in the dental industry as it fights tooth decay, gum diseases, toothache and various oral infections. Additionally, it is a natural teeth whitener and fights bad breath. Neem twigs can also serve as substitutes for toothbrushes.
The leather industry also uses the bark of the neem tree. The bark contains tannins, an organic substance used for dyeing and tanning animal hides into leather.
When the bark is crushed to form a fine powder, the ingested powder reduces fever.
Medicinal uses of neem
The Sanskrit name of neem is Arishtha, which means the ‘reliever of sickness’. It has more than 130 different biologically active compounds. Its antiviral and antibacterial properties make it one of the most widely used medicinal herbs in Ayurvedic science, dating back to more than 5000 years.
The extracts of neem seeds are commonly used in eye and ear drops. Mixing the extract with honey is used to treat ear boils. Neem leaves boiled in water, and then cooled, cure redness and irritation of the eyes.
Ayurveda advocates the use of neem to treat malaria. Neem contains a component known as Gedunin, which is useful for treating malarial fevers.
Neem bark and leaves contain properties which cure arthritis and reduce pain and swelling in joints.
The bark, leaves and seeds of the Neem tree have Polysaccharides and limonoids, which alleviate tumours and cancers without side effects.
Additionally, the flowers and the leaves contain a phytochemical known as Nimbolide. This compound is effective against various types of cancer.
The neem plant has come a long way from its humble origins in Burma. An integral component in a diverse array of industries, this ‘miracle tree’ is truly one of the greatest gifts to mankind from Mother Nature.