The tree that cures is facing death. Neem, renowned for its anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, is under a virulent fungal attack and the disease is spreading rapidly.

Initially observed in the Gadwal region of Telangana a few months ago, ‘dieback disease’ as the fungal infection is being called has spread like wildfire, infecting thousands of neem trees across the State.

Bitter time

The disease changes the leaf colour to pale green or yellow, scorches the leaf margins and reduces the growth of twigs and stem. Though there is no estimate of yields available, neem extract is widely used in remedial formulations in agriculture.

“Our scientists have isolated 11 pathogens that are causing the problem. We are not advising any application or spray of chemical pesticides considering the size of the trees,” R Jagadeeshwar, Director of Research at Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University, told BusinessLine.

“If you spray chemical pesticides on big trees there is every possibility of polluting the soil around. It could adversely impact other plants,” he said.

Jitta Bal Reddy, a farmer from Bhuvanagiri district, said the disease had afflicted about 10 neem trees in his farm. “The disease makes the tree suffer, leading to its death,” he said.

Bal Reddy said he tried alternative medicines such as homeopathy to treat the disease and says it is helping. But Jagadeeshwar said the use of homeopathic medicines to solve the problem has not been tested.

With thousands of neem trees under threat from the disease outbreak, the PJTSAU has deputed a team to study the problem. G Uma Devi, a Professor and Head (Department of Plant Pathology), has prepared a detailed note on the problem.

“The disease is spreading at an alarming rate in different parts of India. ‘Dieback’ refers to the progressive death of twigs and branches which generally starts at the tips,” the note said. Though first reported in India in Dehradun in 1992, the incidence of dieback disease is said to be very high this year.

Jagadeeshwar, however, is confident that neem trees can fight back with their inherent strengths. “As the Ugadi (Telugu New Year Day) approaches, we can expect the trees to shrug off the problem and flourish again,” he said.