|Moringa oleifera Lam.
A fast growing subtropical tree native to the Himalayan foothills. Moringa can grow an astonishing 3 meters in only 10 month after the seed has been sown, though it generally rarely exceeds 10 meters in height, total, and is thus considered a tree of medium stature. With its feathery leaves and bean-like seed pods it is often mistaken for a legume species. The pods are slightly thickened on one end, which is why they are referred to as ‘drum sticks’. Each pod contains 15-20 winged seeds. The tree branches freely and produces dark green feathery tripinnate leaves with elliptical leaflets. The flowers appear in bunches of smallish white or creamy flowers with a subtle fragrance. Moringa is the the only genus of the Moraginacae family, which has 13 species.
Although native to a small, sub-Himalayan region of India, this tree has spread throughout the tropics and subtropics and is now cultivated in many parts of the world. It is highly adaptable and tolerant to even the most inhospitably arid conditions and poor soil. The only thing it does not tolerate is prolonged cold spells with temperatures falling below 20°C. It prefers well-draining soil and temperatures between 25°-30°C.
Although this tree is not very well-known in the western world, it is nonetheless one of the most important and universally useful plants of tropical and subtropical environments. Every part of this tree is useful for food, medicine or other, utilitarian purposes. Given its rapid growth and undemanding requirements there could hardly be a more worthy species deserving of a space in any tropical or subtropical environment.
Every part of the plant is edible – leaves, seeds, pods, flowers and even the roots, though some authority recommend against their use as food. (British colonists called this tree ‘Horseradish root tree’ for the distinct flavor of its roots, which were processed into a horseradish-like condiment). Moringa is extremely rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E, calcium, potassium, iron and, perhaps most importantly, protein.
It is recommended as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children, as well as for the elderly and infirm. It is one of the few sources of high quality vegetable protein which contains all essential amino acids.
In India, the young, still green and immature pods (the ‘drumsticks’), are particularly popular and are often incorporated into curries.
The seeds yield a high quality oil rich in oleic acid, which is equal to olive oil in terms of resistance to rancidity and nutritional value and is used as high quality cooking oil.
The leaves are the most perishable. Ideally they should be consumed within a couple of days of harvest. If intended for commerce they must be bagged and cooled. A better way to preserve their nutritional benefits is to dry and powder them, which can then be added to soups, beverages, curries and other foods as a nutritional supplement.
However, one of the most important and seemingly miraculous powers of this amazing tree lies in its seeds: Moringa seeds act as ‘flocculants’, meaning that they have the power to purify water by inducing contaminant particles to ‘flock together’ and precipitate, thus effectively purifying the water. Trials by pharmacologists at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia showed that “one crushed Moringa seed can clear 90% of the total coliform bacteria in a liter of river water within 20 minutes. Laboratory tests on mice showed that even if 2,000 seeds were used per liter of water …there were no toxic effects on mice”.
This is powerful and important indeed, especially given the poor water quality in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. While it may not be possible to implement instant sanitary installations throughout the tropical regions of the world, it is certainly feasible to plant Moringa everywhere for common public access, which would not only significantly reduce the problems arising from contaminated sources of water, but could also have a great impact on nutrition among the poorest people.
Moringa’s primary medicinal uses are related to problems arising from malnutrition. It has a tonic effect on the gastric system and can cure diarrhea. Thanks to its high vitamin A content it is a great immune system booster and can also alleviate problems affecting the eyes, such as night blindness and xerophthalmia, a condition characterized by dryness and thickening of the conjunctiva which can damage the cornea and lead to blindness.
Moringa is not able to cure cases of severe malnutrition once it has reached a stage that includes grave physiological abnormalities (eg. infections, impaired liver and intestinal function, imbalance of electrolytes and related problems) because at this stage the body can no longer process iron, protein and fat. However, Moringa is the best plant available to prevent such severe cases of malnutrition in the first place and to correct mild and moderate ones.
Moringa has also been shown to reduce blood sugar levels and thus helps in controlling diabetes, as well as reducing blood pressure. It is said to be useful in the treatment of respiratory problems, tuberculosis and malaria.
The raw seed pods act on the liver and are used as an anthelminthic (de-worming agent).
The oil of the seeds contains antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds that are effective in the treatment of bacterial and fungal skin conditions. The seed oil is also applied to aching joints and thought to be effective as a topical application for arthritic or rheumatic aches and pains.
Recent research has also indicated that Moringa may be effect in the treatment of certain kinds of cancer, in particular, skin cancer. Traditional healers have long used Moringa for this purpose, but more studies are needed to evaluate traditional uses with regards to cancer treatments. According to traditional healers Moringa is also an excellent cancer prevention food.
It is not difficult to add Moringa to the diet and almost everybody could benefit from this healing food. However, its great gifts would be most needed and appreciated in developing countries where it could truly be of great life-sustaining service. Here Moringa should be planted in every aivailable patch of public land so it can be accessible to all.