|By Mary Karish
Analyn Abbey, a native of Negros Occidental, the fourth largest island in the Philippines, was 8 years old when she cut her hand while playing in the nearby jungle. Her family home was many miles away from the nearest hospital.
The cut was more than two inches long and was bleeding heavily. Abbey’s mother quickly made a paste with water and the root bark of a young moringa tree growing near their house and applied it to Abbey’s cut. The bleeding stopped within minutes, and the wound healed within a few days.
Abbey left the Philippines a long time ago, but she still reminisces. “Although the scar on my hand is a reminder of my childhood mischief, my mother’s knowledge of the healing powers of the moringa tree is a testament to its many uses.”
The moringa tree, called “nebedaye” in several African languages, was first discovered around 2000 BCE. The name means “never die.” The tree is believed to have originated in India and then eventually spread to various parts of the world. It has been identified by 400 different names. Depending on whom you ask, and what the tree has been used for, some of the widely known names are: mother’s best friend, horseradish tree and tree for life. However, the most popular name is miracle tree because every part of it is edible, and it has been known for its healing, nutritional and beneficial properties.
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, a world-renowned physician, moringa is considered a powerhouse of nutrients. One and a half teaspoons of moringa powder a day provides seven times the nutritional value of vitamin C available in oranges, four times the vitamin A in carrots, four times the calcium in milk, three times the protein in yogurt, and three times the potassium in bananas.
It also contains several types of amino acids, enzymes and minerals, such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Name any nutrient and the moringa tree has it.
The moringa tree seems to grow where it is needed the most — in impoverished and arid areas. Moringa powder has been used to prevent or cure malnutrition in children and pregnant women. Considered “a mother’s milk,” a breast-feeding mother can subsist on moringa and water indefinitely because it stimulates milk production and provides all the necessary nutrients for mother and child.
The leaves can be eaten fresh. They have the distinct taste of horseradish, hence the nickname “horseradish tree.” Steamed, the leaves taste like artichoke. To make moringa powder, lay the leaves on a flat area for a few days to dry and either grind them or rub them against a fine screen. The powder can be used in soups, salads and smoothies.
The health benefits of moringa do not stop there. According to The Epoch Times, moringa is high in fiber and so “it works like a mop in your intestines…to clean up any of the extra grunge left over from a greasy diet.”
In Sri Lanka, moringa is known as the drumstick tree because of the shape of its fruit. The long and slender pods resemble a drumstick. Harvesting is best when the pods are young and tender. Consumed raw, the pods taste similar to asparagus, otherwise they make a great addition to soups or a stir-fry. The seeds are loaded with fiber and nutrients as well.
The seeds are also used as a water-purification agent. When crushed, they bind with salts, bacteria and other impurities for easy removal. Oil extracted from the seeds, better known as Ben oil, is used in several beauty products and cooking. Unlike olive oil, Ben oil never goes rancid and has a high smoking point, making it ideal for frying.
The flowers and leaves contain naturally occurring antibiotic, antiseptic and fungicide ingredients. They are commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine in India for treating a host of diseases such as anemia, inflammation and ulcers.
The branches and cuttings not only provide feed to farm animals because of the high nutritional content, but also serve as mulch for the garden. As the branches and cuttings decompose, they provide nutrients to the soil.
Although moringa is a native of tropical climates, gardeners have grown it as far north as Central Texas. Lee Wallace, a resident of San Marcos, has been growing moringa successfully for several years. Wallace considers it a perennial. If winter temperatures fall below 31º F, it loses its leaves and goes dormant. Usually it comes back when the weather warms up, around early May. If grown farther North, moringa is considered an annual. It is best to harvest seeds in late fall for the next growing season.
There are 13 varieties of moringa trees. The most commonly known are Moringa oleifera and M. stenopetala. They both grow best in dry, sandy soil with relatively low annual rainfall, indicating their drought tolerance. Deciding which variety to grow depends on the weather.
M. oleifera will develop pods in about eight months. It seems to handle cold weather better. When the temperatures drop, it sheds its leaves and the tree may appear dead. However, when the weather warms up, it springs back to life.
M. stenopetala tends to give larger leaves, but may take several years before it gives pods. It also takes longer to recover from cold weather and is therefore recommended for the southern part of Texas.
“Plant a moringa in a southern location with mostly sun,” Wallace recommends. “If a freeze is expected, mulch heavily to keep the roots warm.” Although Wallace’s trees have even survived 15º F, their survival rate in Central Texas has tended to be around five years, due to cold stress and extreme weather changes. Wallace believes, however, that his moringas would live longer if he paid more attention to them.
Wallace came across moringa when he was researching a tree variety that requires no care, is drought tolerant and grows fast. “A moringa tree can grow up to 15 feet from May to November,” Wallace stated, “and the trunk can reach the width of a baseball in its third year.” Wallace also joked, “Preppers, who believe a dire emergency or catastrophic event will happen, thus gravely impacting food supplies, grow hundreds of moringas as a food source and as a water purification system.”
It is easy to start a moringa from seed. Wallace soaks the seeds in water for 24 hours, then plants them in pots until the seedlings are at least 3 feet tall. “Moringa has big tuberous roots that do not like containers,” Wallace advises. “It is best to transplant them into the ground once they reach the recommended height.”
Moringa is not bothered by constant pruning. In fact, if left on its own, it tends to grow tall and spindly. It is best to keep it at a manageable height of 10 to 12 feet. Moringa seems to enjoy putting out most of its leaves and flowers at the top, which makes accessibility hard.
Moringa does not like getting its feet wet. If the soil is clay based, “plant it at the highest point,” Wallace indicated. “Otherwise, build up the soil with compost. If the soil is sandy, you can plant it anywhere.” Its natural habitat is the arid areas of Africa, so it does not require fertilization. Occasional addition of compost would be sufficient to keep moringa happy.
Daniel Vela came across moringa after completing a permaculture course in the Rio Grande Valley. He and his partner, Alison Fjerstad, received seeds from a friend who attended the course as well. They planted 16 seeds that shot up shortly and became straight sticks. Vela started cutting them to keep their height manageable. “The amazing part is that they grew as fast as we cut them,” he recalled. Vela recommends cutting the top off to encourage lateral growth.
The benefits of moringa do not stop with its health, healing and nutritional benefits. Vela has used the plant to enrich the soil, build a live fence and provide shade for young plants during the oppressive summer heat in the Valley.
Vela’s parents bequeathed him a house in Weslaco, in Hidalgo County, that came with a big lot. Nothing was growing on the lot with abundant rocks and dirt. He built up the soil by spreading about 10 inches of mulch that tree trimming companies dumped on his property on a weekly basis. After two years, he was ready to start a garden. His first challenge was keeping young seedlings alive during the summer months.
Considering moringa’s fast-growing pace, Vela uses them as shade trees in the summer by planting them around young plants. He explained that “moringa takes the place of the forest’s top canopy guild” — that is, their treetops enrich the entire environment below them. Being old growth, moringa shed their nutrient dense leaves in the fall. As they decompose, they provide nutrients to smaller trees, eliminating the need to fertilize the soil.
In the fall, Vela cuts moringa branches not only to keep their length in check but also to reduce the dappled shade they provided to young plants during the summer. He leaves the branches on the ground to decompose over time and to provide mulch for the soil. “The chop-and-drop action recycles the nutrients in the soil,” Vela said.
When Vela started a fence-line of moringa trees, he joked, “It looked silly for a while, watching sticks growing. As they started sending out new shoots every few days, they thrived.” Rooting moringa is easy. After cutting several branches, Vela digs holes in the ground, plants the branches with a little amount of compost and mulches around them. Watering them every few days will ensure rooting. After about a week, new shoots will start to appear.
Vela recommends planting the cuttings in the end of summer or beginning of spring. It can root in super-hot weather, but will require regular watering. Moringa tends to lose its leaves in the winter and does not grow much. Therefore, it is best to avoid planting it when it gets cold.
Moringa is indeed a “miracle tree.” Although modern science has recently discovered its medicinal values, its benefits have been documented since ancient times. Whether you use it for its nutritional content, its medicinal benefits or as a soil amendment, it is easy to grow and maintain. Its tolerance to hot climates and its ability to flourish with little water make it the tree-of-choice in Texas. A few moringa seeds can get you started in exploring the various culinary uses of its leaves, flowers, pods and seeds. Moringa branches provide live fences, fodder to farm animals and mulch to enrich garden soil.
No other plant or tree can compare to moringa in terms of the gifts it can provide.