Tree gains popularity for medicinal, insect repellant properties

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An oversized backyard in Brandon has been transformed into a tree farm, and the owner says hers is one of the largest neem tree farms that will help the semi-tropical tree thrust into the spotlight in the coming years.

Vickie Parsons co-owns Neem Tree Farms, which has about 10,000 trees in various stages of life right now. Her interest in the neem tree sprouted out of personal medical needs. 

"There are more neem trees in this warehouse than anywhere in the country," Parsons said. "We started growing neem in 1992 because I'm chemically sensitive and it is a very nontoxic pesticide."

She also uses it to treat skin conditions in rescue dogs. But there's a lot more to this unassuming plant than many might think.

Its oil, pressed from seeds, is EPA approved as a pesticide and fungicide, but also fights viruses and bacteria. In some countries, it's used in shampoos to treat head lice and other human pests.

Leaf extracts contain potent anti-oxidants. Researchers are studying its anti-tumor effects in multiple cancers including breast, prostate and bone. Many believe its twigs pre-date toothbrushes. Chewing the bark is thought to help prevent tooth erosion and gingivitis.  

"I actually use it in two ways: as a toothpaste, I use a neem toothpaste, and I actually eat the leaves, as well, a few times a week," internal medicine specialist Dr. Reshma Patel explained.

Dr. Patel practices integrative medicine. She began learning about neem through her parents who used it while living in India.

"They would take the actual leaves and light them on fire and it would be an insect repellent, and they would take the dry leaves and put them in jars of rice to keep insects away as well," she explains.

Small studies show it may have an anti-ulcer effect.  Dr. Patel believes the ground up leaves help digestion. But she admits it's a tough sell for patients.

"It's actually super bitter, and so I think... I have recommended it to a couple and shared a little of what I have but they weren't crazy about the taste," Dr. Patel said.

Parsons said the taste does take time to acquire. Bitter or not, Parsons said she ships trees, leaves and organic products containing neem across the globe.

"Most of our business is mail-order, or internet," she said. “They grow so fast that we have to go back through them and cut off the tops so we get a nice root system."