Learn which plants thrive in your Hardiness Zone with our new interactive map!

The History of the Neem Tree

By Maureen Katemopoulos ; Updated September 21, 2017

In India, the neem tree has been a source of health and medicinal benefits for thousands of years. It is a fast-growing evergreen tree, with a straight trunk and dark green leaves that form a graceful, shady canopy. Today, an estimated 20 million neem trees grow in India, each with the potential to live for around 200 years.

Historical Records

Azadirachta indica is the botanical name of the neem tree. In Farsi (Persian), these words mean “The Free Tree of India.” The tree is believed to have originated in northeastern India and Myanmar and spread throughout the subcontinent. Early 20th century Indian settlers in Australia, Africa and South America brought neem trees with them to their new countries.

There are multiple references to neem and its medicinal uses in ancient medical documents, namely the Charaka Samhita and the Susruta Samhita, dating back to the second and fourth centuries respectively. They form the basis of the Indian system of natural healing, Ayurveda. The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore conducted research into potential neem products as early as the 1920s.

Healing Properties

In India, the neem tree is called “the village pharmacy” with good reason: neem oil and leaves are sources of a wide array of skin care and medicinal products. Many home remedies using neem have been family recipes in India for centuries. For example, neem oil is said to soothe dry skin and to relieve skin conditions like acne and even boils.

Interestingly, neem also has an ancient history in veterinary medicine. Neem poultices healed the sores of horses and elephants.

Healthy Solutions

The "father of India," Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948), ate boiled neem leaf chutney for its health benefits. Today, besides homemade neem remedies, commercial products like neem hair oil offer relief for dry and itchy scalps, dandruff and the symptoms of psoriasis. People suffering from these scalp problems could try massaging neem oil into the hair and scalp, then washing the hair with neem shampoo. Relief and results are said to be immediate and noticeable. .

Neem Soap

From earliest times, neem leaves were boiled in water used to bathe newborn infants and babies in India. The combination of neem oil with leaf and bark extract created neem soap. Neem soap continues to be an integral part of the historical and documented successes of neem oil. Over 80 percent of neem oil produced in India is used to make soap. Neem soap is antibacterial and antifungal. It is said to effectively fight conditions like scabies, psoriasis, ringworm and even ulcers.

Oral Health

In India, the rural tradition of chewing on neem twigs has ensured healthy teeth and gums among members of the population who do not have access to dental clinics. Medical studies have found tbat neem fights cavities and can heal gum disease. Advocates say that neem bark and neem bark powder are highly effective oral health products.

Antidote Advantage

Unlike antibiotics, a major advantage of neem is that it does not encourage resistance in bacteria, and is therefore a highly effective antidote.


About the Author


Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.