Moringa Oleifera – the Tree of life!
Moringa oleifera is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Moringa, which is the only genus in the family Moringaceae. English common names include: moringa, drumstick tree and horseradish tree. It is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India, and widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas where its young seed, pods and leaves are used as vegetables. It can also be used for water purification and hand washing, and is sometimes used in herbal medicine.
M. oleifera is a fast-growing tree that can reach a height of 10–12 m and trunk diameter of 45 cm. The bark has a whitish-grey colour and is surrounded by thick cork. Young shoots have purplish or greenish-white, hairy bark. The tree has an open crown of drooping, fragile branches and the leaves build up a feathery foliage of tripinnate leaves.
The flowers are fragrant and bisexual, surrounded by five unequal, thinly veined, yellowish-white petals. The flowers are about 1.0-1.5 cm long and 2.0 cm broad. They grow on slender, hairy stalks in spreading or drooping flower clusters which have a length of 10–25 cm.
Flowering begins within the first six months after planting. In seasonally cool regions, flowering only occurs once a year between April and June. In more constant seasonal temperatures and with constant rainfall, flowering can happen twice or even all year-round.
The fruit is a hanging, three-sided brown capsule of 20–45 cm size which holds dark brown, globular seeds with a diameter around 1 cm. The seeds have three whitish papery wings and are dispersed by wind and water.
In cultivation, it is often cut back annually to 1–2 m and allowed to regrow so the pods and leaves remain within arm’s reach.
When the plant is grown from cuttings, the first harvest can take place 6–8 months after planting. Often, the fruits are not produced in the first year, and the yield is generally low during the first few years. By year two, it produces around 300 pods, by year 3 around 400–500. A good tree can yield 1000 or more pods. In India, a hectare can produce 31 tons of pods per year. Under North Indian conditions, the fruits ripen during the summer. Sometimes, particularly in South India, flowers and fruit appear twice a year, so two harvests occur, in July to September and March to April.
The leaves are the most nutritious part of the plant, being a significant source of B vitamins, vitamin C, provitamin A as beta-carotene, vitamin K, manganese, and protein, among other essential nutrients. When compared with common foods particularly high in certain nutrients per 100 g fresh weight, cooked moringa leaves are considerable sources of these same nutrients. Some of the calcium in moringa leaves is bound as crystals of calcium oxalate though at levels 1/25th to 1/45th of that found in spinach, which is a negligible amount.
The leaves are cooked and used like spinach and are commonly dried and crushed into a powder used in soups and sauces.
Moringa seed pods are used in the Ayurvedic medical tradition as a specific cure for worms and parasites. Seed pods are also crushed and applied topically to treat minor skin inflammations, warts and infections. The oil contained in the seed pods can be used to reduce inflammation caused by arthritis, rheumatism and gout. Moringa seed pods contain complex chemical compounds with antibiotic and antioxidant properties that can boost the body’s own natural immune system. As a result, the seed pods are often recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners for patients with digestive upsets and abdominal tumorsv.
Seeds crushed to a powder are used to clarify turbid, dirty water. The cleansing takes place by a process of electrical charges established between the muddy particles suspended in the water and the pulverised seeds, and gradually, after about an hour, the muddy particles are pulled to the bottom of the water by the force of gravity. Research shows that the seed not only settles the mud, but can carry with it over 90% of bacteria and viruses. A report published in New Scientist, December 1983, said that the seeds have been used in Sudan and Peru to purify muddy river water. It was also reported that seeds have antimicrobial activity. The seeds also have potential for treating sewerage water.
Although Moringa tree can also function as windbreaks for erosion control, live fences, as an ornamental or intercropped to provide semi-shade to species requiring less direct sunlight.
Moringa tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, but prefers a neutral to slightly acidic (pH. 6.3-7.0), well-drained sandy or loamy soil. Minimum annual rainfall requirements are estimated at 250mm with maximum at over 3,000mm, but in waterlogged soil the roots have a tendency to rot. (In areas with heavy rainfall, trees can be planted on small hills to encourage water run-off). Presence of a long taproot makes it resistant to periods of drought. Trees can be easily grown from seed or from cuttings. Temperature ranges are 25-35 degrees Celsius (0-95 degrees Fahrenheit), but the tree will tolerate up to 48 degrees in the shade and it can survive a light frost.
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