The Neem Tree

All the trees in my back yard have a story attached to them.  The neem however is not only the tallest, but also the one with the most unusual story. Neem trees are well known for their hardiness, and a multitude of useful properties. It is a tree that my father knew a lot about and I dare say was perhaps one of his favourite trees…at least to talk about.  I never planned to have a neem tree in my yard, so how this massive tree, which has thrived basically on a pile of rock and sand, has come to be the most prominent tree in my garden is a story worth telling…

The story begins  in March 2007. It was approaching the 6 month anniversary of my father’s death, and my younger daughter’s fifth birthday. I wanted to mark the occasion in a meaningful way, and decided to plant a tree to mark both events. At that time, only 2 years since we had moved into our own house, the backyard had very little in the way of trees. It was a rocky, uneven piece of land. The  sum total of our “gardening and landscaping” efforts up to that point consisted of adding a small pick-up truck load of topsoil to the rock . To say the backyard was a work in progress would have been a gross exaggeration. So anyway, I came to the conclusion that planting a tree in the back yard would be a great way to mark two important anniversaries, and make a meaningful contribution not only to our “landscaping” efforts, but also to helping maintain our ozone layer, reduce global warming, and generally to the health and continued existence of our planet Earth.

With these lofty goals in mind, I entered into discussion with my sister, my husband and my younger daughter about the type of tree that we should plant. I cannot swear to it, but I suspect my husband wanted a mango tree…which he still is waiting for, more than a decade later. My sister suggested a neem tree which was one of my father’s favourite, and I think my daughter’s idea was a poui tree. There are many poui trees on the property of the community that we live in, and they are a sight to behold when they bloom. My younger daughter and I had taken many walks on the property since we first moved in. We both enjoyed feasting on the beauty of the bright yellow  poui blooms forming a cloud above the trunk, and then days later a carpet on the ground below. Despite the local lore about blooming poui trees and exam preparation, that all Jamaican students must have heard, we could not help but feel uplifted and glad to be alive at the site of a poui in bloom. I had no interest in a neem tree. So my little daughter and I decided to get a poui tree to plant in the back yard.

Having made the decision, I set off one morning to our local Forestry Department’s plant nursery, with the plan to purchase a baby poui tree. Although I had passed it many times going to the Constant Spring Tax Office, this was the first time I was driving into  the nursery. Once I entered the property, I was directed to the designated parking area by the someone at the gate. When I enquired about purchasing plants, I was directed to the back section of the property. As I walked along a little footpath between buildings, I could see the greenhouse netting supported by posts that constituted the plant nursery, with rows of plants in little black bags. I found a young fellow working on some plants. I approached him and said: “Good morning, I am hoping you can help me. I would like to buy a yellow poui.”

The young man stood up, brushed the soil off his hands, and said he would be right back with the receipt book, and told me the cost. I don’t remember now what the figure was but I don’t think it was more than J$150. Meanwhile I wandered around looking at the horticultural works in progress. In about 5 minutes, the guy returns with the receipt book and says to me “It was a neem tree you wanted right?”

I was dumbstruck. Nobody had said anything about a neem tree.I had not even been thinking about neem trees when I drove in. So for this young man to ask me out of the blue about a neem tree, when I had clearly and specifically asked for a yellow poui seemed nothing short of a message from beyond. It took me less than a minute to grasp that I was very clearly being directed to acquire a neem tree…So I replied to the young man “Actually I wanted a yellow poui, but I think I will take both a neem and a poui tree, if that’s okay”

So on that day in March 2007 that marked my younger daughter’s fifth birthday, she and I each planted a neem and a poui tree respectively in the backyard. The poui went on the flat section, where we thought there was better soil, and the neem went a little closer to our deck, onto a rocky slope that we had dumped topsoil on top of  in a somewhat futile attempt to level it. Both trees are alive and thriving today, but the neem tree is way bigger, lusher, and more involved in our daily lives than the poui. When you enter the house and look through to the glass doors that open to the deck, that neem tree is the first thing you see, in its dark green splendour.

One of my favourite things to do is to sit on on my open deck, with a cup of tea, and my thoughts, or my two daughters. Occasionally we manage to cajole my husband into joining us for tea on the deck. The tree makes the deck a comfortable place to do this in the mornings and evenings by providing coolness and shade. I did not know before that birds eat the neem seeds.I learned that its small white unassuming flowers (not quite the vivid sunny yellow of the poui) have a sweet scent, and produce nectar that attracts humming birds which also built nests in the tree. The tree is also home and hunting ground to a variety of lizards, which have very effectively demonstrated their remarkable acrobatic skills by leaping from fence to branch and back, always landing accurately on target. Most recently, my daughters and I watched a mama bird teaching 2 baby birds to fly.

The tree does not apparently need much to grow, as I don’t recall ever adding fertiliser. I had stopped watering it once it got to my height. Yet as it grows in its exuberant and enthusiastic way, there is definitely a need for control. It sheds leaves on to the deck that have to be swept up. The branches have to be chopped down on a regular basis to prevent the tree reaching dangerous heights, or taking over our neighbour’s garden and creating a mess with its shedding leaves and seeds. When the seeds drop, even onto what seems to be nutrient free ground, they sprout into small plants with amazing facility and speed. It becomes an eternal mission to seek and destroy these stray seedlings before we get taken over by a neem forest.

My husband complains that the tree blocks the view, and provides nothing edible the way say for example a mango tree might have. For me the tree and all the life it supports is the view, and being near it nourishes  and restores my soul.  A neem tree is a good metaphor for family,and indeed any relationship: you need very little to start one, and keep it growing, but in order to ensure that it continues to provide joy and shelter, it requires the hard work of maintenance. We have to prune away the things that can cause harm, we have to look out for and uproot bad habits (like taking each other for granted)  that can grow as easily as the seeds , and we have to sweep away the dead leaves of grudges and “bad mind” that create a breeding ground for unwanted things. I am certain that my father’s spirit had something to do with how I acquired this tree so many years ago. As I sit in its cool, comforting, and spirit-replenishing shade today, I wonder if this was what my father wanted me to appreciate: that maintaining a neem tree, like a family or friendship, is harder work than actually just getting it to grow, yet the rewards are beyond measure.

One thought on “The Neem Tree

  1. And so I come to the end … having read every single one of your engrossing and captivating posts. Amazing how you acquired the Neem – and reaped the reward for your open response 🙂 Yes I remember it was your Dad’s favourite. He knew what we did not know huh …. Best to you as you find serenity,solace and reflect on the lessons of the Neem.


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