The neem tree is a tropical evergreen, related to mahogany.

You can tell this tree has a bit of class. In India, neem has been used for more than 4,000 years as a medicine and as a health and beauty aid.

The astonishing healing qualities of its seeds, bark and leaves are mentioned in early Sanskrit writings.

In rural villages today, the neem tree is known as the village pharmacy, providing a remarkably effective health service from cradle to grave.

Forgotten your toothbrush? No problem - find a neem tree, snap off a twig and chew the end bit to make bristles. Then use it to clean your teeth like millions of people do in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Active compounds in the twig are supposed to prevent cavities, oral thrush and heal gum disease.

As an antibacterial and anti-fungal agent, this plant is second to none. Neem is so effective because it works on a variety of levels, directly killing ineffective organisms as well as boosting the body's immune response by increasing antibody production.

Neem leaves can be eaten as part of a meal or made into a tea or tonic.

In Asia, it is used to control diabetes, epilepsy, stomach ulcers, headaches and fevers. The bark of the tree is thought to have anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory activities. Neem oil or the paste from leaves can be applied to cuts, sprains and burns or to heal chronic skin conditions such as acne and eczema.

In fact, the compound sodium nimbinate in neem leaves has been found to reduce inflammation even more effectively than hydrocortisone. Neem-based insect repellants fend off pesky flies and mosquitoes in humans and fleas and ticks in animals.

Relatively little is known about neem in the West but scientists have started to explore its huge potential in order to control disease and protect the environment.

Neem leaf extracts, for instance, stop moulds that grow on wheat and also prevent peanuts from producing the highly dangerous substance aflatoxin.

Spraying plants with neem extract seems to prevent viral infection and strengthen their defences.

In developing countries, farmers' earnings are spent on expensive agricultural chemicals, virtually guaranteeing a vicious cycle of poverty, poor health and pollution.

Neem-based sprays, however, present a safe, effective and inexpensive way of protecting crops against hundreds of pests.

Neem is a so-called "soft pesticide" - insects and larger animals such as goats refuse to eat plants covered with neem because of its bitter taste.

Yet neem is non-toxic to both man and beast and naturally biodegradable. In this country, neem could be particularly useful in the application of organic grass care - on lawns and football and rugby pitches, for example.

We hope to hear more about the uses of this extraordinary plant when the Fourth World Neem Conference takes place in Mumbai, India, in November 2002.

In the meantime, don't fret if you cannot locate your nearest neem tree. Organic neem products and info are available from East West Herb Shop, Covent Garden, London. Tel 0800 0928828 or visit