We’re traveling from monsoon-drenched mountains to the dry desert of Rajasthan today. The last three weeks in the hills around Dehra Dun — first volunteering at Navdanya, then quieting down my mind on a retreat — have been (mostly) a relief from Indian summer heat. The dramatic downpours have brought with them cool, comfortable breezes. And the nature’s loving it: the birds sing ecstatically, trees hang heavy with ripe fruit. Every once in a while you can hear the rustling in the wet, glimmering leaves followed by a loud thump! as one of them falls on the ground.
Towards the end of our stay at Navdanya, the interns began planning a new garden to demonstrate, and experiment with, permaculture methods. I gave a brief introduction to permaculture and facilitated the initial design brainstorming session. It was a great opportunity for me, but also a humbling one: this is the first time I’ve tried to apply permaculture in a sub-tropical climate, and I realized how different it was from what I’m used to at home. The arc of the sun, the weather patterns, the pests and the beneficial insects, the availability of resources – everything was different. Above all, I felt painfully unfamiliar with the plant species here: what their properties are, what growing conditions they like, how to use them. The experience has motivated me to look at the abundance of Indian botany with new eyes, and start by getting to know just a few plants well.
And there’s no better way to get to know a plant than to use it. So, I want to introduce here three trees that I’ve come to know somewhat better than others in the last few weeks… through using them, feeling their effects on my own body, for they yield food, medicine, and cleansing products, respectively. They are the gems of Indian trees, ones I would love to one day plant in my own garden (unless it turns out that South Carolina is not quite tropical enough for them).
Mango: What could be more irresistible than a ripe fragrant mango? Now that I’m in a place where mangoes are both local and seasonal, I’ve sunk my teeth into the juicy, sweet, bright yellow flesh many a time. One of the highlights of the past week was a mango lassi made with mangoes from the trees in the retreat center’s own mango orchard, and yogurt made from the milk of the cow grazing underneath them.
But Indians would also add a word of warning: according to Ayurveda, mangoes bring a lot of heat into the stomach, so eating too many will cause diarrhea. Sadly, my own experience and that of my friends corroborates that there is a correlation between too many mangoes and too many trips to the bathroom. So relish every bite – but don’t overdo it.
Neem: The neem tree is an amazingly versatile plant, so much so that in India it is called “the village pharmacy.” It is known in the earliest Ayurvedic texts for its medicinal properties. Its seeds, leaves and bark contain compounds that are antiseptic and anti-fungal (which is why they are extremely bitter). It also functions as a natural pesticide plant in a garden or on a farm. The leaves can be used to treat chicken pox and warts, the twigs are used as toothbrushes, and both extracts and oils help with any skin and other inflammations… That’s just the start of it, really.
I’ve experienced the healing properties of this tree myself. I recently had an old bug bite that just wouldn’t heal. I applied some neem oil for a couple of days, and it dried up the wound and the irritation went away. I also carry neem soap with me when traveling in India. Things here can get… well, dirty, and in the past I used to buy the horrible chemical anti-bacterial soaps sold in markets just because I wanted something effective. In neem, I’ve found an alternative that is good both for me and for the environment.
Speaking of soap…
Soap nut tree: At Navdanya, every Saturday is “self-sufficient Saturday,” when we learned to make something ourselves that we would otherwise have to buy. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you can guess that I got really into this! One time we set out to collect soap nuts from the soap nut tree, and experiment with making soap. All the soap in the dishwashing stations outside Navdanya’s kitchen and dining room was made from soap nuts, so it was something we used daily. We mashed the soap nuts (also known as soap berries), added water, mashed some more, strained the whole soapy, foamy mess, and had a great time while doing it. Afterwards, though, we found out that the proper way to do it would have been to first dry the soap nuts in the sun, grind them into a powder, and then boil them. Oh well. I thought what we produced was quite convincingly soap-like as it was.