Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Neem Tree

Rajib Ghosh
WikiMedia Commons

My father, who was born and raised in India, liked to tell my siblings and me how he brushed his teeth as kid. He’d walk outside, snap off a twig of his backyard Neem Tree — and chew on it!

A member of the mahogany family, the neem tree produces olive-like fruits whose oil has healing properties. It’s one of those cultural cure-alls, like chicken soup or tiger balm. 

For millennia, that extract has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. Early Sanskrit writings described it as curing skin diseases, sores and burns. And modern medicinal studies document its promise in controlling bacterial infections, diabetes and malaria. 

Neem tree leaves are also a natural insecticide. When insects ingest the leaves, the chemicals profoundly affect the insects’ growth patterns and feeding behaviors. But because these compounds aren’t in the flowers, they don't affect bees and other pollinators. 

And, because these chemicals are present in low concentrations and disappear quickly, their impact on the ecosystem isn’t nearly as negative as those from synthetic chemicals. 

Neem trees have also been planted in Africa and South America, where they provide fuel and lumber, as well as medicines. Given how useful they are, I wondered why they aren’t commercialized all over the world. 

It’s all about business. Because people have been using neem extracts for centuries, it’s difficult for pharmaceutical firms to patent its products. And without the capacity to protect a product from competition, there’s little incentive to pay for the costly regulatory approvals to process and distribute neem products. 

I’m sure my Dad was right: neem could cure all that ails us. But, we won’t encounter it on our pharmacy shelves. At least, not for now.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.