Uses of Neem Tree

| February/March 1993

The neem tree is one of the most versatile of India’s plants. Valued for centuries throughout tropical Asia for its multitude of medicinal and other uses, it has ­recently attracted attention in the United States as an effective botanical insecticide.

The umbrella-shaped neem, a member of the mahogany family (Meliaceae), grows to about 50 feet tall. It is generally evergreen, though in some areas it may be briefly deciduous. Its foot-long leaves are divided into 8 to 18 toothed leaflets which measure 1 to 4 inches long by 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches wide. Fragrant white flowers about 1/2 inch broad in branching groups crowd in the leaf axils. The thin-fleshed, egg-shaped yellow fruits measure about 3/4 inch long and contain a single seed.

The common name neem is derived from nimba, the Sanskrit word for this tree. Botanists know it as Azadirachta indica, the generic name coming from Persian words meaning “free” or “noble tree” and the species name being Latin for “Indian”.

Neem is native to India and much of tropical Asia, and is widely cultivated in the tropics and subtropics, ­particularly in arid regions. It has been introduced in much of Africa, and it is grown as a shade tree in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. It is planted as a street tree in Haiti and is also cultivated in Guatemala, Cuba, and Nicaragua. It grows in Hawaii and Florida but rarely flowers in the latter state. In areas where temperatures dip below freezing, neem must be grown in a greenhouse or in pots which can be brought indoors during cold ­weather.

The neem tree thrives in most soils, even saline and alkaline ones, but it does better on dry, poor, rocky soils than on wet ground. The roots can penetrate a hard clay pan, which tends to increase soil fertility and helps to neutralize acidic soils.


Is there a part of the neem tree that hasn’t been found useful? The wood, durable and resistant to insect attacks, has been used for everything from furniture to boat oars, from agricultural implements to drums and carved images. Like its relative mahogany, it takes on a good polish.

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