ISSUE Quite a few traditional remedies rely on these rough, serrated green leaves. APARNA KARTHIKEYAN takes a quick look at the medicinal value of neem

“So were you garlanded with neem leaves as well when you went to the hospital for your delivery?” I asked a friend, whose beautiful baby girl I had gone to admire on Tamil New Year's day. “Garland? I had an entire tree with me in the car,” she laughed, surreptitiously eyeing my hot, crispy vadai. Bidding her much mummy luck, I went back home for a sumptuous meal, and, ha, the centrepiece was neem flower and mango patchadi. What, I wondered, was this neem fixation? It was definitely time to get to the bottom of it.

Revathy Sankaran, television personality and tradition lover, says neem trees are to a house what Mariamman is to a village — a ‘kaval deivam' (deity who protects). “Neem protects by being a wonderful disinfectant. A sprig of neem leaves tucked into a pregnant girl's plait acts as a ‘rakshai' when she goes into labour; it's primarily to ward off infections, in case anybody around harbours a cold/flu. Even during pregnancy, neem is a woman's close companion; neem oil has traditionally been used to prevent stretch marks, long before cocoa butter stormed the scene. And which ‘valakaapu', tell me, is complete without the ‘vepillai kaapu?''

Shobha Menon, Managing Trustee, Nizhal (a not-for-profit organisation that works for tree conservation and sensitive greening in urban areas) also extols the virtues of neem. “Neem leaf, an essential ingredient in many Ayurvedic remedies, stimulates the immune system, improves liver function, detoxifies the blood, and promotes a healthy respiratory and digestive system. And neem oil is used to relieve itchiness and dryness of the skin.” Oral and periodontal care is another area where neem works wonders, says Shobha, and having grown up hearing grandparents talk about the neem twig doubling as a toothbrush, I could well relate to that one. ‘New one everyday, disposable brush' we were told as kids, and for some reason, we promptly fell about laughing.

But neem, really, is no laughing matter, especially given the alarming rise in incidents of pesticide residue and pesticide resistance. And that is exactly where neem gracefully steps in as the saviour. “Neem insecticides and pesticides are organic and completely non-toxic,” says Shobha, while Revathy adds that the tender, reddish-green neem leaves are traditionally ground and administered to small children with jaggery. “They're encouraged to swallow it; it gets rid of ‘naaku poochi' and most importantly, it won't hurt their tummies.”

“Neem water and turmeric is the perfect remedy for pox; the best thing is, it leaves no scars,” says Revathy. “And the hand-pounded, pulverised bark is mixed with rosewater and sandalwood paste; it makes a very effective homemade ointment for summer boils.” The list goes on…. The benefits of neem, it seems, are not just legendary, but remarkable. Naturally, I'm no longer surprised that the friend's wise mother asked her to squish in with a big, fat neem tree on the way to have her baby.

SIX IN ONE

Revathy Sankaran on the significance of the mango and neem flower patchadi.

In South India, on new year's day, this ‘arusuvai' patchadi is one of the first things that is tasted. A composite of six different tastes (mango for tartness, jaggery for a sweet flavour, tamarind for a sour taste, green chillies for spiciness, salt and most important, dry-roasted neem flowers for bitterness) it symbolically suggests that life is a mix of different emotions and paves the way for us to take things in the right spirit. After all, life is not always uniformly sweet, is it?

NEEM NOTES

Shobha Menon's Neem tips.

* Plant neem in your garden at least 3 ft away from a compound wall.

* Neem trees require minimal water.

* Deep taproots break through hard clay pans and mine the subsoil for nutrients. The nutrients are returned to the surface as a leaf litter for other plants to use. They're said to minimise mosquito activity and help reclaim acidic soils.

* Where there is less space, you can raise the tree in big cement pots, in a good sunny spot.

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012