By Norman Bezona
Neem is one of the most ancient and widely used plants of the warm temperate and tropical regions of the world. Its medicinal qualities are outlined in the earliest Sanskrit writings that date back some 6,000 years. Modern scientists are finding even more uses for this remarkable tree.
Fortunately, both trees and products are being supplied by some local farmers and stores. My favorites are neem toothpaste, soap and oils. For example, I have been using the oils to treat sun-damaged skin. Rough patches of skin that can potentially become skin cancer began to fade and finally disappear after a few weeks of daily application. Since using the toothpaste for several years, I have not had a cavity, so neem uses are worth exploring. Neem mulch might be effective to repel insects like the coffee cherry borer and rose beetles that hide in soils around host plants.
Farmers and home gardeners plant crops and create landscapes for many reasons. The more useful plants, including 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 there plant for beauty but most often it is to supply food, medicine, clothing, or craft and building materials.
Partners of the Americas’ Farmer to Farmer Program is working to assist farmers planting and using trees to help sustain folks in good times and bad. Several folks from the Big Island have recently returned from Haiti on humanitarian projects following the earthquake in January 2010. Among them, Voltaire Moise is focusing on the market aspects and I am working on production issues of a variety of crops. As is typical, we learn from farmers there and try to 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.
Neem is an example of one tree that has a great deal of potential for Hawaii. If ever there was an indispensable tree in many regions of the tropics, it would be the neem. 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 has reached Hawaii. Locally, 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, 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 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 neem. In fact, it is used in hundreds of ways, ranging from pesticides to skin remedies.
It is used in the treatment of fevers, malaria, ulcers and heart disease. In ancient Indian writings, it has been described as a tree that increases longevity. 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 as 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 spread, much like the monkeypod. It is rarely leafless 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 that 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 like those found in the South Kohala area. The trees do not tolerate much frost and do not do well in cold, wet areas. We have tried neem 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 both 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.
In March, Moise and I will leave for the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. There they use neem to treat malaria, so we hope to learn even more about this amazing tree.