TREEING OFF AT SAVISTA: The Neem
The neem tree is widespread across the plains of India. It is particularly prolific in semi-desert regions such as Rajasthan, since it requires very little water and grows easily in dry, stony, sunny climates. Its sturdy fruit is mainly propagated by birds who carry it around; when the birds drop the fruit, these effortlessly take root. This is another reason why new neem trees can be seen sprouting right next to existing grown trees of various varieties.
The neem is particularly valued across India as a medicinal tree, and has an over 4000 year old presence in Ayurvedic medicine (one of the India’s indigenous systems of medicine). In fact, one of the Sanskrit names for the neem tree is arishtha which means reliever of sickness. It is even referred to as the “Gateway to Heaven”, and planting a neem tree is seen as a sacred act. Every part of the neem is used for its medicinal properties. The bark acts as an analgesic, and when ingested in the form of a tea is known to bring down high fever in case of malaria and severe headaches caused by fevers. The pale cream-coloured flowers which bloom in the spring are dried in the shade and stored in airtight containers for long-term use. When mixed with honey, yoghurt or butter, they are believed to cure intestinal worms. The leaves have anti-bacterial and antiseptic properties. They keep away insects and mosquitoes, and purify and cool the breezes blowing through them, so the tree is generally planted close to habitations. A wet paste made by grinding the leaves is used by village folk as a poultice in case of major and minor cuts or wounds. In the case of skin infections, allergies or rashes, neem leaves are steeped in boiling water which is then added to the bath water. Newborn babies are protected by laying them in a bed of tender neem leaves. Neem sticks are used even today in villages as a combined toothbrush-toothpaste; before the advent of factory manufactured oral hygiene products, neem sticks were universally used for brushing the teeth.
Savista has numerous shady neem trees all around the haveli, and new ones can be seen sprouting everywhere. Like the villagers around us, we too use the leaves for a variety of purposes. Neem leaves dried in the shade act as virtually indestructible substitutes for mothballs for the protection of woolens and silks, so we lay bunches of leaves in the cupboards where we store our winter gear. We also add a few springs of neem leaves when we bag our freshly harvested grains to prevent insect infestation or mould. We also follow the traditional practice of using the oil extracted from the neem fruit for soil pest control. When the trees are heavy with fruit, we simply pound the collected fallen fruit (called nimoli locally) and mix it with the soil for use as a crop pesticide.
Neem oil is also used as an ingredient in the manufacture of medicinal soaps. The bark has additional uses in the tanning and dyeing of leather, and the fibre is used to make ropes. The trunk is termite resistant and lends itself to furniture-making.
Botanical info: Class: Magnoliophypsida; Order: Sapendales; Genus: Azaderachta; Species: A. Indica; Names: Margosa, Nimba, Neem, Veppalai.