Neem — for more than a thousand uses
Farmers and home gardeners plant crops and create landscapes for many reasons. The more useful plants such as neem can often be seen growing in many parts of the world. On the Island of Hispanola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, this medicinal tree has become a lifesaver when other medicines are unavailable. Some folks plant for beauty, but most often it is to supply food, medicine, clothing or craft and building materials. Now, we are in South Florida and heading for the islands to the south. As is typical, we learn from farmers there and will share what we learn back home in Hawaii. In our travels, we are seeing whole new approaches to farming and the use of plants we don’t often see back home.
An example of one tree that has a great deal of value is the neem tree. If ever there was an indispensable tree in many regions of the tropics, it would be the neem. Mentioned in the earliest Sanscrit writings, it has been revered for more than 4,000 years.
Probably the main reason Polynesian seafarers did not introduce neem along with the hundreds of species and varieties important to their survival, is the seed is so short lived it wouldn’t have made the long and arduous voyage. Now, thanks to modern scientists, organic farmers, permaculturists and others interested in more sustainable agricultural enterprises, neem reached Hawaii. Locally, folks such as Jay Ram, Craig Elevitch, Tane Datta, David Fell, Garrett Webb and others, have been propagating the trees and testing them at different locations.
I first became interested in neem after observing the use of the twigs as chewing sticks in South India and West Africa and the Caribbean. Wherever they were used, I noticed the teeth of folks were free of cavities, extremely white and clean. In fact, in many countries you can actually buy neem toothpaste, and neem soap. Neem insecticides are now becoming available in Hawaii.
Of course, there are many more uses for this amazing tree. Not only is it an attractive ornamental related to mahogany, but it is called the village medicine cabinet. More than 40 common medicinal uses are attributed to the remarkable neem. In fact, it is used in hundreds of different ways, ranging from pesticides to skin remedies.
It is used in the treatment of fevers, malaria, ulcers and even heart disease. In ancient Indian writings, it is described as a tree that increases logevity. It is known for its nematicidal, spermicidal, piscicidal, larvicidal, bactericidal and fungicidal activities. Time will tell just what uses we will find for it locally, but in forestry literature, it is highly regarded for reforestation of dry areas, for soil conservation, for shade and as an ornamental. In fact, I saw it used as the main planting at the southern tip of India, which has about the same climate at South Point.
In Haiti, it grows in dry areas where little else can survive. Young trees are round headed, but as they get older they become spreading, much like the monkeypod. It is leafless rarely and then only for a short period. New leaves appear in March or April before all the old ones fall. Panicles of small white flowers, smelling of honey, produce a sweet edible fruit shortly after. The fruit pulp is used as a tonic, purgative, emollient and is beneficial in the treatment of urinary disease and piles. I suspect besides being used as an ornamental in dry and difficult locations, its use on a small scale will be as a green mulch to reduce insect, slug and snail populations in the garden.
Neem is fast growing and once established is quite drought tolerant. It tolerates alkaline soils such as those found in the South Kohala area. The trees do not tolerate much frost and do not do well in cold, wet areas. We tried neem at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka at 3,000 feet and it just barely survived. With full sun and good drainage, it should do well below that elevation.
If all these attributes were not enough, the wood of the neem is valuable for construction of furniture and building purposes. If you don’t have your own neem, be sure to get one and see what it can do for you. There is definitely a market for neem products locally and for export since Hawaii is the only state in which the tree grows well. We have a real advantage in that other countries where it grows do not have as favorable political and quality control environments. In your own garden, you can enjoy the neem’s beauty and have its bountiful blessings as well.
Neem might also be of value when used as a windbreak or in field planting for control of the Coffee Cherry Borer. Neem leaves can be used as mulch around the coffee trees and possibly the fruit and seed used to produce a spray on insecticide.
This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
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