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Azadirachta indica A.Juss. 1830
pronounced: ay-zad-ih-RAK-tuh IN-dik-uh
(Meliaceae — the white cedar family)
common names: Neem, Margosa Tree
Azadirachta is from the Persian name of the tree Melia azedarach, to which the neem is related; indica is Latin for ‘Indian’.
The neem is native to India and Burma, and grows in much of south-east Asia and west Africa. Although most people have heard of the tree for its medicinal uses, it is surprising how few can recognize it when they see it. There is a line of mature trees in Barbarra Street, Picnic Bay, and another of younger trees, descended from the Barbarra Street trees, in Wansfell Street.
It is a remarkably fast growing tree, evergreen, but in drought conditions can shed nearly all of its leaves. The trunk is relatively short and straight, and supports a fairly dense roundish crown, with quite a wide spread of branches. The bark is hard and scaly, whitish grey to reddish brown. There is a strong taproot and well-developed lateral roots, many of which grow on the surface, and are a menace in lawns. In moist conditions, e.g. where the area under the trees is regularly watered, the dropped fruits germinate very readily. Regular decapitation of the seedlings with the lawn-mower will keep them from becoming a nuisance. If the fallen leaves are allowed to accumulate under the trees, nothing else will grow there; but if they are picked up and removed by the mower, grass is able to grow.
The alternate, pinnate leaves are crowded towards the end of the branch, and bear up to 29 or 31 leaflets, each about 8 cm long, with the terminal leaflet often missing. The leaflets are deeply serrate, sharply pointed and falcate.
The flowers are white and fragrant small stars borne in great numbers on long, drooping stems, and attract bees and other insects in large numbers. Each flower has five whitish petals surrounding a yellow funnel that contains the stamens and the style. Bisexual and male flowers exist on the same tree. The fruit is a glabrous olive-like drupe. The epicarp is thin and the bitter-sweet pulp is yellowish white and very fibrous. The endocarp usually contains the one seed, but occasionally there are two, or very occasionally three seeds. These have a brown seed coat.
The young leaves are eaten on the Hindus’ New Year’s Day to ward off sickness during the coming year. Hindus, to whom the tree is sacred, used to festoon fresh leaves across their houses during smallpox epidemics. Some trees bear sweet leaves and some bitter, and the latter are used in curries. A bag of dried leaves is put in cupboards and drawers to keep out moths and cockroaches. The leaves are also used in poultices to heal festered wounds.
From the fruits and leaves is obtained Margosa oil, used in the treatment of leprosy and skin diseases. Care should be taken in its use, as it can cause an adverse reaction. Oil from the seeds, applied externally, is believed to cure rheumatism, and it also has antiseptic qualities. The bark and gum yield valuable medicines. In India the twigs are sold in markets as tooth picks that help both to clean the teeth and kill bacteria. The leaves are reputed to aid the digestive system and to stimulate the liver. Infusions of the leaves are also used to treat lung conditions and to lower the glucose levels in the blood of diabetes sufferers.
The tree can be harvested for timber after about 35 – 40 years from planting. The sapwood is greyish white and the heartwood red to reddish brown, resembling mahogany. It is aromatic, termite resistant, moderately heavy with uneven grain, and very durable. It seasons well and is easy to work, but it does not take a good polish. It is used for building (beams, doors, window frames, floors), for furniture making, for making carts and agricultural implements, oxen yokes, boatbuilding, oars, etc. In some places, especially in India, it is used for carving religious statuary. It also makes smaller items such as cigar boxes and toys.
The larvae of the Leaf Webber Loboschiza koenigiana occasionally use this as a food plant, and can be a pest.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2008, 2009
Page last updated 19th July 2018