Art Drysdale : Neem Oil to be Banned from Canadian Garden Centers

The Fate of Neem
Neem is about to be banned from garden shelves; and what will be the fate of Effective Microorganisms?

by Art Drysdale

First, for well over a decade, the product Neem Oil has been available at many garden centres, and other gardening supply stores. It has never been officially registered as a pesticide in Canada, and hence it usually has a reference to it being a leaf-shine product on the label. Neem does work, but it works by coating the insects (and plant leaves etc.) which tends to clog the stomata (breathing holes in the leaves) and even interferes with photo-synthesis. The condition will be temporary but if Neem is used regularly (which it must be for the effective control of many insects) it is definitely phytotoxic and hence I think you will be better off with a product such as the Residual Insecticide Spray (yellow label) from Doktor Doom.

My own first direct encounter with the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) was in January 2002 while visiting Mamiku Gardens on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia. It was owned and operated by Veronica Shingleton-Smith and her son. Veronica is truly a herbalist and grows many of the unusual plants of which we've only heard. This was even more evident immediately we began the tour around the garden! For example, we all sampled two different bay tree leaves, including the common sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) used both for cooking, and as a potted tree or shrub in both warm and cold climates–in the latter it has to be brought in each winter.

In addition to the Neem tree, here is just an example of other herbs she showed us: blackberry (Myrcia citrifolia) which has very unusual fruits suited to many medicinal uses, and leaves highly regarded as poultices or compresses for swellings or skin disorders. Among other of her favourites, not necessarily herbal in nature: hang-down flower (Heliconia rostrata); sexy pink heliconia (H. collinsiana); and the torch lily [or torch ginger] (Nicolaia elatior phaeomeria magnifica) are all interesting sights in Veronica's garden.

The Neem trees she has planted in various parts of her garden definitely seemed to be working according to Veronica. In fact, she told me that originally she had only one Neem tree, and that from self-seeding, her collection had multiplied, but they were all in one location in the garden. She found that many plants that usually were subject to insect attacks seemed to be almost free of their predator insects in the area of the Neem trees. That caused her to move the younger trees to various different areas of the garden. Veronica then found that various other plants that are almost insect magnets seemed to be free from or almost free from their insect attackers when grown in the proximity of a Neem tree.

[Neem as an insecticide is not easy to find–check with specialty nurseries, especially those specializing in orchids, or hydroponic dealers.]

As mentioned, Neem oil (from the Neem tree) has been quite popular with gardeners and growers in Canada as an insecticide. However, that is about to change. I understand that Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency will soon issue a ban of all Neem oil products from store shelves, effective at the end of 2012. This is precisely because retailers have literally been ignoring the fact that their customers are buying Neem oil products for the control of insects, when the product has never been registered in Canada. So, if you are a Neem believer/user, do plan to stock up while you can!

It is illegal to sell products as pesticides which have not been registered in Canada.

A similar fate befell an infamous scented geranium plant about 20 years ago. It was being sold as a combatant for mosquitoes but repeated testing by many (including me) found it to be effective for only a very limited period of time (maybe 30 minutes at most) and the federal government told nurseries and garden centres to stop selling the plant as a mosquito repellant.

Now recently, I note that there is considerable interest in products under the name of Effective Microorganisms or EM. Kim Hammond, Grower and Groundskeeper of nearby Milner Gardens and Woodland, says, “Molasses (a sugar for the fermenting process) is mixed with the ‘mother’ mix of concentrated EM [often called Pro Bio] in a somewhat convoluted process. Fermenting is required for several days. Be sure to burp the bottle to prevent pressure build up. Next, the mixture is diluted with water to make the magic elixir for your plants, inside and out.

“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I may have remained a non-believer. A Stephanotis had been languishing in my window for several years. Three smallish leaves clung to a few spindly stems that appeared healthy but far from the robust growth to which I had grown accustomed. I refused to part with the plant on the basis that if it ever bloomed, it would fill the room with a most intoxicating scent I had experienced many years before, and thus it would be worth the wait. So as instructed, I dosed my struggling stephanotis with the EM mixture. Within two weeks it had grown two feet. I chopped it back and new growth came from the bottom, and today–two years later it is fifteen feet or more having been chopped back several times to increase the leaf density.

“My Stephanotis has yet to bloom, but I am hopeful for next spring as the leaf nodes are becoming closer together. Subsequently, I tried EM on other indoor plants with considerable success. I confess to neglecting my indoor plants. Being more of an ornamental lover, indoor plants are often the victims of my experiments. But amazingly, the Meyer’s lemon fruited, the Christmas cactus bloomed twice and the Amaryllis flowers lasted for weeks. And as a bonus, the Clivia formed two seed pods. Now one could make some deductions about these apparent marvels: the Stephanotis was dormant too long, pot bound or just needed more fertilizer; the Meyer’s Lemon was finally warm enough; the Clivia was reaching maturity. All fair assumptions, but it was the other plants on which I continued experiments that sealed the deal. A Streptocarpus that was covered in aphids–within 24 hours was aphid-free. A tray of Fuchsia cuttings watered in with EM rooted earlier and with a larger root ball than a similar tray watered with plain water. A Rhododendron showing clear signs of unhappiness–yellowing, stunted, not blooming and not long for this world–never looked back after a shot of EM. Now my back garden is a living testament to its effectiveness.

“Effective Microorganisms truly live up to the name. Now available in many forms and from many companies, I highly recommend you do your own experiments and test it for yourself. Then you can decide whether it’s Myth or Magic.”

My point here is, even if EM is as effective as Kim says it is above here (and I don’t doubt her) it is obviously still an unregistered product, and the feds will not take to it well. Granted it has taken years for them to announce a crack-down on Neem oil, but it may be that in the future such unregistered products may come under scrutiny faster. We’ll see!