The moringa tree
by Dr. Martin L. price, executive director
THE MORINGA TREE, MORINGA OLEIFERA, IS CALLED "MOTHER'S BEST FRIEND". That is one way they sometimes refer to this tree in the Philippines where the leaves of the malunggay, as they call it, are cooked and fed to babies. Other names for it include the benzolive tree (Haiti), malunggay (Philippines), horseradish tree (Florida), and drumstick tree (India). I believe it is one of the most exciting plants that we have in our seedbank. The leaflets can be stripped from the feathery, fern-like leaves and used in any spinach recipe. Small trees can be pulled up after a few months and the taproot ground, mixed with vinegar and salt and used in place of horseradish. Very young plants can be used as a tender vegetable. After about 8 months the tree begins to flower and continues year round. The flowers can be eaten or used to make a tea. They are also good for beekeepers. The young pods can be cooked and reportedly have a taste reminiscent of asparagus. The green peas and surrounding white material can be removed from larger pods and cooked in various ways.
Seeds from mature pods (which can be 2 feet long) can be browned in a skillet, mashed and placed in boiling water, which causes an excellent cooking or lubricating oil to float to the surface. The oil reportedly does not become rancid and was once sold as ben oil. The wood is very, very soft, though the tree is a good living fencepost. It makes acceptable firewood but poor charcoal. It is an extremely fast growing tree.
Roy Danforth in Zaire wrote, "The trees grow more rapidly than papaya, with one three month old tree reaching 8 feet. I never knew there would be such a tree." The tree in our organic garden grew to about 15 feet in 9 months, and had been cut back several times to make it branch out more.
It is well to prune trees frequently when they are young or they will become lanky and difficult to harvest. Where folks begin breaking off tender tips to cook when trees are about 4 or 5 feet tall, the trees become much more bushy.
The folks to whom we have sent the tree in Africa have been pleased at its resistance to dry weather. Rob Van Os rated its growth, yield and potential as exceptional and added that it "can be planted after the other crops, even near the end of the rains." He has introduced it into several villages already.
The first plants grew so well for Gary Shepherd in Nepal that he had us arrange for 1,000 of the large seeds. He reports that at five months one was 12 feet tall and most were 6 feet.
There is more good news. The edible parts are exceptionally nutritious! Frank Martin says in Survival and Subsistence in the Tropics that "among the leafy vegetables, one stands out as particularly good, the horseradish tree. The leaves are outstanding as a source of vitamin A and, when raw, vitamin C. They are a good source of B vitamins and among the best plant sources of minerals. The calcium content is very high for a plant. Phosphorous is low, as it should be. The content of iron is very good (it is reportedly prescribed for anemia in the Philippines). They are an excellent source of protein and a very low source of fat and carbohydrates. Thus the leaves are one of the best plant foods that can be found." In his Edible Leaves of the Tropics he adds that the leaves are incomparable as a source of the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cystine, which are often in short supply.
Dennis Rempel in Burkina Faso reported on seed we had sent. "Folks loved the leaves. In fact it is supposedly found locally, though I have yet to be shown any. They say it is rare but highly prized to be added to sauces. Everyone wants more."
We have found that it responds well to mulch, water and fertilizer. It is set back when our water table stays for long at an inch or two below the surface. We planted one right in the middle of our vegetable garden for its light shade. The branches are so brittle that I would hesitate to climb it, though Roger Magliore in the Dominican Republic says that children readily climb the trees. It is not harmed by frost, but can be killed to the ground by freezes. It quickly sends out new growth from the trunk when cut, or from the ground when frozen. I understand that living fences can be continually cut back to a few feet.
We learned of another unexpected use from Dr. Samia Al Azharia Jahn with the Deutsche Gsellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit in Germany. Suspensions of the ground seed of the benzolive tree are used as primary coagulants. They can "clarify Nile water of any degree of visible turbudity." At high turbid- ities their action was almost as fast as that of alum, but at medium and low turbidities it was slower. The doses required did not exceed 250 mg/l. Coagulating the solid matter in water so that it can be easily removed can remove a good portion of the suspended bacteria. "River water is always faecally polluted. At our sampling site the total coliforms ammounted during the flood season to 1600-18,000 per 100 ml. Turbidity reductions to 10 FTU were achieved after one hour, reducing the coliforms to 1-200 per 100 ml". "Good clarification is obtained if a small cloth bag filled with the powdered seeds of the benzolive is swirled round in the turbid water"
The material can clarify not only highly turbid muddy water but also waters of medium and low turbidity which may appear milky and opaque or sometimes yellowish or greyish. During the cool season complete clarification, which takes only one hour in hot water, may take two hours unless the water is left in the sun for some time to raise its temperature." "In the case of the Blue Nile, for example, water of low turbidity in the initial and final flood season needs doses equivalent to about one quarter of a seed per liter, water of medium turbidities needs half a seed per liter and at high turbidities the dose should be 1-1.5 seeds per liter.". Water from a different river will require different quantities of clarifier because of variable characteristics of suspended material. Simple experiments in a jar will determine the best dose.
To prepare the seed for use as a coagulant, remove the seed coats and the quot;wings". The white kernel is then crushed to a powder, using a motar or placing in a cloth on top of a stone and crushing. The powder should be mixed with a small amount of water, stirred in a small cup, then poured through a tea strainer before being added to the turbie water. It is even better to spread a thin piece of clean cloth on the strainer. "The milky white suspension has to be added to the turbid water and stirred fast. If a wooden soup whisk is used, the nails sometimes present in these gadgets should be replaced by small wooden sticks. Continue fast stirring for at least half a minute. After that the floc will not form unless it is stirred slowly and regularly (15-20 rotations per minute) for about five minutes." "After stirring the treated water should be covered and left to settle for at least an hour." If moved or shaken before then, clarification will take much longer or fail to reach completion. The GTZ is planning implementation projects with counterparts in Indonesia and Kenya. You may write to him at GTZ, FB 332; Dag-Hammarskjold-Weg 1-2; Postfach 5180; D-6236 Eschborn 1 bei Frankfurt/Main, West Germany.
I quote Alicia Ray, who wrote a booklet on the benzolive in Haiti some time ago. "It seems to thrive in impossible places - even near the sea, in bad soil and dry areas. Seeds sprout readily in one or two weeks. Alternatively one can plant a branch and within a week or two it will have estab- lished itself. It is often cut back year after year in fence rows and is not killed. Because of this, in order to keep an abundant supply of leaves, flowers and pods within easy reach, "topping out" is useful. At least once a year one can cut the tree off 3 or 4 feet above the ground. It will readily sprout again and all the valuable products will remain within safe, easy reach.".
Beth Mayhood with Grace Mountain Mission wanted to establish a model vegetable garden on a small piece of land. "It was windswept and sunbaked with no natural barriers or trees in the area. Soils were poor and very alkaline. The salt content was also high. We started in January to prepare large quantities of compost. In April holes were dug in the poor soil and filled with compost. Benzolive trees planted in seedbeds germinated in 3-4 days. In 9 weeks they were transplanted in between the garden beds, around the edge of the 200 x 250 ft area and in a double row about 5 ft apart in the middle. The trees protected against the prevailing inds." I saw slides of this spot later. It was impressive. The light shade of the tree is a considerable help to most vegetables.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to use pruning of some sort. If left to itself the tree becomes quite tall and lanky. This method of cutting it back to 4 feet each year sounds good. One method I tried with some success was to cut each branch back a foot after it had grown 2 feet until it was a multibranched shrub. Alternatively, normal harvesting can have the same effect if begun while the tree is young.
Beth Mayhood wrote, "We liked them so much we began picking the growing tips to boil as a spinach several times a week. This picking of the growing tips caused the tree to branch. Our constantly pruned trees became thick-limbed and many-branched." I am told that when grown for its roots, the seeds are sometimes planted in a row like vegetables.
COOKING THE LEAVES. Alicia Ray writes, "Of all parts of the tree, it is the leaves that are most extensively used. The growing tips and young leaves are best. [However, we sometimes pull the leaflets off in our hands and cook them without regard to age]. Unlike other kinds of edible leaves, benzolive leaves do not become bitter as they grow older, only tougher. When you prepare the leaves, always remove them from the woody stems which do not soften. [We did not know this the first time we served them. It was almost like having wire in the dish]. "The leaves can be used any way you would use spinach. One easy way to cook them is this: Steam 2 cups freshly picked leaves for just a few minutes in one cup water, seasoned with an onion, butter and salt. Vary or add other seasons according to your taste. In India leaves are used in vegetable curries, for seasoning and in pickles. Let your imagination be your guide."
COOKING THE PODS. Alicia Ray writes, "When young, horseradish tree pods are edible whole, with a delicate flavor like asparagus. They can be used from the time they emerge from the flower cluster until they become too woody to snap easily. The largest ones usable in this way will probably be 12 to 15 inches long and 1/4 inch in diameter. At this state they can be prepared in many ways. Here are three:
1. Cut the pods into one inch lengths. Add onion, butter and salt. Boil for ten minutes or until tender.
2. Steam the pods without seasonings, then marinade in a mixture of oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley.
3. An acceptable "mock asparagus" soup can be made by boiling until tender, the cut pods seasoned with onion.
Add milk, thicken and season to taste. "Even if the pods pass the stage where they snap easily they can still be used. You can cut them into three inch lengths, boil until tender (about 15 minutes), and eat as you would artichokes. Or you can scrape the pods to remove the woody outer fibers before cooking."
COOKING THE PEAS. Alicia Ray writes that the seeds, or "peas," can "be used from the time they begin to form until they begin to turn yellow and their shells begin to harden. Only experience can tell you at what stage to harvest the pods for their peas. "To open the pod, take it in both hands and twist. With your thumbnail slit open the pod along the line that appears. Remove the peas with their soft winged shells intact and as much soft white flesh as you can by scraping the inside of the pod with the side of a spoon. Place the peas and flesh in a strainer and wash well to remove the sticky, bitter film that coats them. (Or better still, blanch them for a few minutes, then pour off the water before boiling again in fresh water). Now they are ready to use in any recipe you would use for green peas. They can be boiled as they are, seasoned with onion, butter and salt, much the same as the leaves and young pods. They can be cooked with rice as you would any bean.
"In India the peas are prepared using this recipe:
12-15 horseradish tree pods
"Blanch both peas and pods flesh, drain. Remove milk from 2 1/2 cups grated coconut by squeezing water through it two or three times. Crush ginger root and garlic, save half for later. Mix peas, flesh, coconut milk, ginger and garlic together with onion, bouillon cubes, oil, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook until the peas are soft, about 20 minutes. Fry remaining coconut until brown. Fry remaining half of crushed ginger root and garlic in 2 T. oil. Dice eggs. Add coconut, ginger, garlic and eggs to first mixture, heat through. Serves 6.
THE DRY SEEDS. The dry seeds are apparently not used for human food, perhaps because the bitter coating has now become hardened. They are used for their oil, which is about 28% by weight. The oil can be removed by an oil press. I have heard reports that the residual cake is not safe to feed to animals, but I have not seen the results of any studies. Write to me if you have details. If an oil press is not available, seeds can be roasted or browned on a skillet, ground, then added to boiling water. The oil floats to the surface. Alicia Ray says that roasting is, however, not necessary.
THE FLOWERS. A visitor who had spent time in the Pacific area told me recently that the flowers are eaten there. Unfortunately, I do not recall details. Perhaps our readers can help. Alicia Ray says they are used in Haiti for a cold remedy. Water is boiled, then a cluster of flowers is placed to steep in it for about 5 minutes. Add a little sugar and drink as needed. It is very effective!
THE ROOTS. The tree is uprooted and the roots grated like horseradish. Alicia Ray says to one cup grated root add 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1/4 t. salt. "Chill for one hour. This sauce can be stored for a long time in the refrigerator." The following caution appeared in EDN 35. It begins by quoting from a recent review by Dr. Julia Morton in "Economic Botany." "The root, best known in India and the Far East, is extremely pungent. When the plant is only 60 cm tall, it can be pulled up, its root scraped, ground up and vinegar and salt added to make a popular condiment much like true horseradish. ...The root bark must be completely removed since it contains two alkaloids allied to ephedrine - benzylamine (moringine), which is not physiologically active, and the toxic moringinine which acts on the sympathetic nerve endings as well as on the cardiac and smooth muscles all over the body. Also present is the potent antibiotic and fungicide, pterygospermin. The alkaloid, spirachin (a nerve paralyzant) has been found in the roots.... Even when free of bark, the condiment, in excess, may be harmful." The key words are "in excess."
I worked one summer in the laboratory of forage scientist Dr. VanSoest at Cornell University. He said we should learn a lesson from the deer. Deer can eat plants with no ill effect that are poisonous to cattle. The difference is that deer are browsers. They eat a small amount of one thing, then move on to many other things during the course of the day. In contrast, when a cow likes something it keeps eating. "The body is capable of detoxifying small amounts of a great many things." I have thought of that many times since working with so many kinds of plants at ECHO. No doubt a steady diet of some would be harmful, as is the case with many common foods like cassava which contains cyanide or spinach with oxalates. There is a comforting degree of safety in "browsing" among a large selection of foods. Not only will your body more likely be able to detoxify the small amounts of any particular toxin, but it is more likely to find at least a minimal amount of the various nutrients it requires. All the more reason to work to bring diversity to the diets of people with whom we work.
USE AS AN ANTIBIOTIC. A study at University of San Carlos in Guatemala was summarized in EDN 37. Herbal applications are commonly used to treat skin infections in developing countries, although few investigations are conducted to validate scientifically their popular use. A previous study had showed that moringa seeds are effective against skin infecting bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa in vitro (i. e. in a test tube). This study showed that mice infected with S. aureus recovered as quickly with a specially prepared aqueous extract of moringa seed as with the antibiotic neomycin. This study proves only the effectiveness of moringa as they prepared it. That preparation could be done in any country, but not with just household untensils. It was prepared by infusing 10 g powdered moringa seeds in 100 ml of 45øC water for 2 hours. The part that is a bit more complicated is reducing the 100 ml down to 10 ml by placing it in a rotavaporator. This is a very common piece of laboratory equipment which continually rotates a flask containing the liquid. An aspirator attached to a faucet produces a modest vacuum when the water is turned on. A rubber tube from the aspirator is connected to the rotavaporator, reducing the pressure and causing the water to evaporate rather quickly without boiling it. The ointment was prepared by placing 10% of the extract in vaseline. (We can send a copy of the article to medical personnel).
Are you in a situation where there is a shortage of antibiotics? This ointment could be prepared for use in the local community anyplace where there is electricity and running water. I would not be surprised if much simpler methods, better suited to preparation as needed in the home, might not also be effective. I hope someone will devise and test such preparations.
OTHER SPECIES. Over the years Moringa oleifera has been the number one seed in our seedbank, in terms of number of requests and positive reports. When we learned that Moringa stenopetala, a species native to Ethiopia had larger edible leaves, more drought resistance, and larger seeds (important for those using moringa to purify water) we were eager to learn more. When Dr. Samia Jahn, sent a modest supply of seeds for us to share with with those in our network we mentioned it in ECHO Development Notes issue 32.
It has been our experience that M. stenopetala produces a stockier, bushier, more vigorous tree. The trunk is considerably thicker at the base and the leaves are noticably larger. Reports from Africa tell us that this species does much better under drought conditons than M. oleifera, but by the end of a long dry season they may still loose their leaves. In Kenya trees have reached 10-12 meters in height. In Sudan trunk diameters are at least 2-3 times as thick as those of M. oleifera In Ethiopia it is cultivated as high as 1800 meters (5400 feet). Reports are consistent that M. stenopetala trees are not as quick to set flowers as M. oleifera. In Sudan the first flowers appeared after 2 1/2 years, compared to 11 months for M. oleifera. At ECHO, our 4 year old trees have yet to set flowers, but they have also been dama ged by two freezes.
Both species will start from cuttings. M. stenopetala leaves taste similar to M. oleifera when cooked and milder if tasted raw. One interesting difference is that it is the roots of M. oleifera are used as a condiment similar to horseradish. With M. stenopetala it is the bark that is used.
While our trees have not produced to date, we are occasionally sent a fresh shipment from Ethiopia. Those in our overseas network can request to be placed on a waiting list for a free packet. We cannot take U.S. orders at this time. (See EDN 32-5 and 36-8 for more discussion of this plant). ECHO can usually provide trial-sized quantities of Moringa oleifera ($2.75 per packet; free to Third World development organizations) from the trees on our farm.
For those seeking other potential sources we can recommend the following:
• Christas Cactus, 529 W. Pima, Coolidge, AZ 85228, p: 602/723-4185
• Greenleaf Seeds, P.O. Box 98, Conway, MASS 01341, p: 413/628-4750 (No telephone orders)
• Of the Jungle, P.O. Box 1801, Sebastapol, CA 95473
• Peace Seeds, 2385 S.E. Thompson Street, Corvallis, OR 97333, p: 503/752-0421
• Peter B. Dow & Co., P.O. Box 696, Gisborne 3800, NEW ZEALAND, f: (079) 78 844
• Ellison Horticultural PTY.Ltd., P.O. Box 365, Nowra, N.S.W. 2541 AUSTRALIA p: 6144-214255
• Kumar International, Ajitmal 206121, Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, INDIA.
• Samuel Ratnam, Inland & Foreign Trading Co., (Block 79A, Indus Road #04-418/420, SINGAPORE, p: 0316 p 2722711, f: 2716118)
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