CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Saleem Ahmed and his wife, Carol, sit beneath the neem tree that he planted in his Hawaii Kai yard 20 years ago. The trees grow quickly -- his grew eight to 10 feet in two years -- but he keeps them pruned to 35 feet. The trees can also be kept in apartments in pots.
All-purpose neem tree keeps isle insects at bay
If you're a label reader, you've probably seen the word "neem" on the ingredients list of household and personal-care products.
What is it?
Neem is a bitter antiseptic resin found in all parts of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica, in the mahogany plant family). The evergreen is native to the Indian subcontinent, where it is used medicinally and valued because of the demand for neem products, including toothpaste, soap and lotions. Leaves are placed in books, bags of rice, etc., to keep insects away (just as many folks around the world put bay leaves in grain products).
Neem has been in Hawaii since the first tree was planted by Dr. William Hillebrand in the 1800s, on his property across from Queen's Hospital, now Foster Botanical Garden.
The person associated with the neem tree in Hawaii today is Saleem Ahmed, who studied it intensely while working at the East-West Center from the 1970s to 1990s. He planted the first neem tree behind the center's Burns Hall around 1978. "I obtained USDA permission to import neem seed," Ahmed says.
"My mother in India used to put a handful of neem leaves per sack of wheat and rice at home (to keep weevils away). Also, I used to brush my teeth periodically with neem twig. Even now I do this periodically. I am now 68 years old, and my dentist says that my teeth are good. To what extent this was due to neem, I don't know."
The most relevant use for neem today, he says, is in plant care. Neem seed oil spray is used to control many insects as a safe insecticide and to treat for bacterial, viral and fungal plant diseases. Ahmed also mixes neem "cake" (the residue left after oil is extracted from the seed) in the soil to control nematodes, termites and other soil-borne pests.
His family uses the oil for cosmetics and controlling eczema and other skin problems, but Ahmed cautioned that anyone wishing to use neem medically consult with a doctor -- as with anything new.
Ahmed has found practical uses for neem all over the world, from controlling nematodes on cardamom farms in India, to providing shade for pilgrims on the Plains of Arafat near Mecca. The Saudi Arabian government planted 50,000 neem trees on the plains, Ahmed says.
"Nothing else grows in that barren, desolate land, where temperatures in summer cross 120 degrees and the annual rainfall is probably 1 to 2 inches," he says. The trees are irrigated with water so saline that it is undrinkable. "Yet the trees, now more than 20 years old, continue to grow luxuriantly."
In Tamil Nadu, India, he encountered a shrine to the plant. "I found thousands of pilgrims thronging to the temple of the neem goddess to offer thanks for getting cured of whatever health problem was bothering them. Many people mentioned they ate one to 15 fresh neem leaves per day."
Ahmed says the tree grows well in Hawaii, at locations from sea level to mountains. Many can be seen bordering Waialae golf course. As they are good shade trees that are easily propagated, grow quickly and require little care, he would like to see more planted in parks and along avenues.
On Jan. 19, Mayor Mufi Hannemann planted a 6-foot neem tree at Blaisdell Center. The tree was a gift from Milun (the Association for Promoting South Asian Culture) and the University of Hawaii's Center for South Asian Studies. "We hope the tree will continue to convey the South Asian community's mahalo to Hawaii for many years to come," Ahmed said.
Ahmed is available to speak to groups about the neem tree. Call 371-9360 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com