Neem is the term used to refer to extracts or products derived from the Neem tree, native to the Indian sub-continent and used for centuries in Indian culture and the associated Ayurvedic medicine tradition. All parts of the Neem tree have been used for healthcare. Fruits and seeds provide us with neem oil and neem seed extracts, leaves are used as extracts and the bark of the neem tree has been used as a traditional toothbrush!
The Neem tree is part of the mahogany family. It is one of two species in the genus known as Azadirachta – the botanical name for the Neem tree is Azadiracta indicus.
Although native to the Indian sub-continent, the Neem tree grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions in many other parts of the world including Nepal, Burma, Nigeria, Vietnam, other regions of East Asia and East Africa. Neem is not a particularly large tree by tropical standards, reaching heights of around 20 metres.
Being tropical, the Neem tree is an evergreen and fast growing. Neem trees have largish leaves (sometimes more than 1 foot long) as well as olive-like fruit, both of which are used medicinally.
The use of the Neem tree has been most developed in Indian culture and the associated traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Such is the power of common belief that in India, it is known variously as ‘the sacred tree’, ‘heal all’, ‘the village pharmacy’ and ‘cure for all illnesses’.
Hence, parts of the Neem tree have been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments from treating worms in the gut, to a sedative. It has also been used traditionally as contraception!
These panaceas, however, do not always fit into modern herbal medicine which considers the prime use of Neem tree extracts as being best:
The plant compound derived from Neem which has been most researched is Azadirachtin. This is a secondary compound of the substances nimbin, nimbinin and nimbidin found in neem oil – which can in turn, be found in neem seeds as well as neem leaves.