You’ve tried many ways to do away with mosquitoes. Experts tell Geeta Padmanabhan that nochi leaves can act as a repellent

How do you get rid of those pesky insects with an uncanny ability to bite your elbows when your hands are busy? How do you combat mosquitoes? In what must be a multi-crore industry, we fend them off with nets, coils, liquids and electronic traps and in times of desperation, with deadly chemicals sprayed under tables and beds. But, for those who put their faith and money in harmless, biological warfare, Chennai Mayor Saidai Duraiswamy's budget for 2012-13 had cheery news. Instead of fogging the city with strange-smelling fumes, the Mayor proposes to shoo mosquitoes away with a bushy, ornamental plant.

“Distribution of nochi plants for mosquito control,” the Mayor said, catapulting the rurally well-known plant to urban stardom. Not that it is a total stranger to the city. “Anyone who has come from the village will be familiar with its properties,” he said. Add those who take interest in “natural” therapy and those who have a bush or two in their yard, you have enough members to start a nochi fan club.

One of them is biologist and member of Nizhal, T.D. Babu. Outside Nizhal's one-room office in Adyar, he fills me with the plant's profile while arranging nochi saplings to be distributed among kids at a summer camp. “It is nochi in Tamil, white-chaste tree in English. Botanically it's known as vitex trifolia or vitex nigundo,” he says. The names correspond to karu and vellai nochi.

Prevents soil erosion

The ones he is watering are small, but they grow to a height of 6 metres, Babu says. “Call it a small, bushy tree.” Fond of places that overlook water, nochi grows on the banks of canals, ponds, lakes and rivers across India. While it enjoys the ready water supply, it repays its debt by stopping soil erosion. Farmers have planted this bush along the borders of their fields to prevent precious soil from being washed away. When we let it grow to its natural size, nochi shows its gratitude by producing leaves, bark, fruit and roots with enough medicinal values to fill a fair-sized booklet.

“Growing nochi is an excellent idea,” said Sheela Rani Chunkath IAS, who writes on Indian traditional medicine. “It is a handy plant for several common ailments.” Boil a bunch of leaves and carefully add a heated brick to keep it bubbling. Inhale the vapour with a bed-sheet covering your head — a soothing remedy for respiratory infection and headaches. “I then use the nochi water in my bath to soothe bodyache.” Tie crushed leaves, pounded garlic and bran into a kizhi (bundle), heat it and apply it on joints with arthritic pain, she suggests. Extract the leaf juice, boil it with some oil, bottle it and rub it on the forehead and neck to relieve headache.

Our ancient texts have recorded nochi's medicinal properties, she said. Why do we rush for antibiotics when we have remedies with no side-effects? A village health nurse, trained in allopathy, will recite a thousand uses for nochi and aadathodai (adathoda vasica). We have to re-acquaint ourselves with our medical traditions, revive the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition, she said feelingly. “I once started a project to plant medicinal herbs in schools, so teachers could talk to kids about them.”

Traditionally, villagers have used the heated leaf-kizhi for fomentation (oththadam) for swellings, arthritis and body-pain caused by vaatham, said Babu. Some 20-30 grams of leaf-juice mixed with the same quantity of cow's urine is prescription for spleenomegaly. Leaf-paste is externally applied over the inflamed spleen area. Leaf decoction is a diuretic and a de-wormer. A nochi-leaf pillow is considered effective against headache and sinusitis. Don't throw away the fruit. Dry it, powder it and use it for de-worming and as a cure for headaches. The decoction of the root is taken for vatha diseases, burning sensation of urethra, abdominal pain and intestinal worms.

Insect repellent

Of great interest to Chennai Corporation and its mosquito-menaced citizens is the plant's ability to repel the winged invader. “The trees are considered insect/pest repellent, the twigs anti-bacterial,” said Corporation officials in-charge of the project. “Farmers believe nochi plants protect their crops and create a bio-fence with it. Leaves are added to stored rice to keep weevils away.” Farmers also string the leaves into a thoranam and brush crops with it to keep out pests, said Babu. To make it an effective weapon to kill mosquitoes, you need to smoke the leaves, he said. “Leaves can be repellents, but to wipe out mosquitoes completely you have to prevent water stagnation, garbage and pollution.”