It's relied upon to treat a multitude of ailments in Ayervedic medicine. And its leaves can be steeped to yield unique and comforting herbal tea. It serves as a natural insect repellant and is used to make furniture. It keeps teeth and gums healthy and makes hair shine. It provides garden shade and is counted as a vegetable in some cuisines. What is it? It’s neem. India’s ubiquitous and native plant serves so many purposes that it’s hard to imagine getting along with out it.
How It Grows
Native to the Indian subcontinent, neem (Azadirachta indica) is a hearty tree that thrives in drought-prone conditions; it only needs a trickle of water to survive. It flourishes in many environments but does best in hot, tropical climates that are arid to sub-humid and have an abundance of sandy soil. The tree is so prolific that it’s considered a weed in some areas of the world.
To thrive in such desolate soil the neem tree is surprisingly large and full of leaves, flowers, and seeds. Neem trees can reach up to 50 to 60 feet in height with wide-spreading branches full of plump leaves that fan out into a feather or fin shape. For this reason, they make wonderful shade trees and are often seen in India lining town streets, planted around public buildings, and used for landscaping the gardens of privates homes.
Neem is also referred to as the “Indian lilac” because it boasts beautiful white flowers that can be as fragrant as the blossoms of a lilac bush. It produces an olive-like fruit that encloses one to three seeds. All parts of the neem tree—root, bark, leaf, flower, fruit, and seed—are used in some form or fashion throughout Indian culture and beyond.
How It's Used
Used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, neem is considered an essential healing herb. Often dubbed “the village pharmacy,” neem has been used to treat a wide range of ailments, including cardiovascular, skin, respiratory, and digestive issues. From teas and tonics to powdered capsules and oils, neem may be applied and ingested in a variety of formats as part of a professionally guided Ayervedic treatment.
Neem is known for its bitterness, which can add unique flavor to a variety of cuisines. In India, neem shoots and leaves are used like vegetable to prepare a variety of dishes. In Tamil, the flowers are prepared in soups and stews. The flowers are also prepared with jaggery (unrefined brown sugar) in a traditional new-year celebration dish to symbolize the bitter and sweet events the upcoming year may bring. In Bengal, the leaves are fried with eggplant to make a traditional appetizer. Neem has also been adopted by Southeast Asian cuisine, especially in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Myanmar, it is popular to boil bitter neem leaves and flowers with tart tamarind fruit to use as a vegetable, or pickle neem leaves to enjoy as a condiment. The natural gum trapped in neem bark is filled with protein and may be used as a food additive or filler in food production.
In a garden:
Neem trees are strategically planted in Indian gardens to provide shade to drought-affected areas. The pruned branches and leaves can be ground and composted into a natural fertilizer. The neem tree contains chemical properties that serve as a natural pesticide to help a garden thrive. Neem leaves are often boiled in water to create a repellant for pesky birds like sparrows, and the dry leaves may be sprinkled around kitchens to keep bugs and rodents at bay. Beekeepers often use neem trees for its fragrant flowers to attract bees that yield a specialty neem honey.
As a tea:
Like other teas or herbal infusions, fresh or dried neem leaves can be steeped in hot water to produce a caffeine-free herbal tea.
As a toothbrush:
Neem twigs are nature’s toothbrush. A centuries-old tooth cleaning practice is still in use today in India, Africa, and the Middle East. It involves chewing on a neem twig to release neem’s natural gum and oil. The twig is then used to “brush” the teeth, gums, and tongue, cleaning out the mouth and removing bacteria.
Nearly 80% of India’s neem oil supply is used in the manufacture of soap. The popularity of neem in cosmetics extends beyond Indian borders. Western culture has adopted neem as an important ingredient in natural beauty products, such as toothpaste, shampoo, face cream, make up, and nail polish.
For wood & textiles:
The wood of the neem tree has been compared to mahogany in its beauty and strength. The hearty wood is used to craft furniture, drum bases, boats, and boat oars. The bark of the neem tree is also very high in tannin and can be used for tanning animal skins into leather. The bark also yields a coarse fiber that is commonly woven into rope.
While the neem tree has a sweet fragrance from its lilac-like flowers, all parts of the neem tree—flowers, seeds, leaves—are known to have a very bitter flavor. Neem is often combined with other ingredients in cooking, herbal medicine, or tea blending in order to balance and soften neem’s bite.
Our Teatulia® Neem Nectar Tea is a beautifully balanced blend of black tea leaves and neem leaves, both from our own organic garden in Northern Bangladesh. It’s a flavorful and full-bodied brew with a refreshing brightness. The herb and tea combination steeps into a golden liquor with a bright and sweet aroma. When you sip the tea, you’re rewarded with a flavor that includes hints of cherry stones, orange rinds, and caramel. It’s quite a treat and unlike any neem tea we’ve ever sipped.
Here are a few general tips for brewing a great cup of Teatulia’s Neem Nectar Tea:
- Because our Neem Nectar is an herb and black tea blend, you can steep it like you would a straight black tea—in filtered, boiled water at a temperature around 200 to 212 degrees. (If you steep just neem leaves alone for an herbal infusion, you can use this same temperature.) If you don’t have an electric kettle with temperature control, just remember that at sea level water simmers at 190 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. The boiling temperature drops about a degree for every 100 feet in altitude increase.
- Place a Neem Nectar tea bag (or 2 grams loose leaf tea) in an 8 oz. mug. Pour the boiled water over the tea bag (or leaves) and steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Be sure not to oversteep this tea; the longer it steeps, the more quickly it will release any bitterness and astringency. Taste the tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
- Other brewing tips: Cover the tea while it’s steeping to keep the heat in the vessel. Teatulia’s Neem Nectar Tea can typically be infused a couple of times.
- Neem Nectar is gorgeous sipped on its own as a hot tea. It’s also lovely over ice. And, like a traditional black tea, it can be enjoyed with milk or cream and a little sweetener of your choice.
Buying & Storing Neem
Dried herbs like neem leaves won’t ever really go “bad” but they can get stale. Always buy your teas and herbs from a reputable company that can tell you when and how the product was processed and packaged. Most teas herbs have the best flavor when brewed and enjoyed as soon as possible after their processing date. If stored properly, neem can stay fresh and drinkable for up to two years. To ensure your neem stays as fresh as possible as long as possible, take care to store it in a cool, dark place, away from light, oxygen, moisture and fragrant pantry companions like coffee or spices.