Moringa olifera

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Much has been written about the wonderful qualities of Moringa oleifera, sometimes known as the Drumstick tree or the Horseradish tree (it has nothing to do with the herb ‘horseradish’). There is also a great deal of research being carried out on the tree.

Perhaps this interest is due to the Moringa tree’s very large number of uses.  Almost every part of the tree is edible. The seeds can be eaten as a nut. The roots are used as a substitute for horseradish. The leaves can be eaten raw as a salad green, and the leaves and pods in cooking as a vegetable. They are nutritious, containing plenty of protein.  Leaves and branches are also a good animal fodder and the timber is a useful fuelwood.

But that’s not all. The leaves, roots and flowers of Moringa are claimed to have medicinal qualities, and the wood yields a blue dye! In traditional medicine, the powdered seed is mixed with ointment to treat bacterial skin infections. Using the leaves in soil before planting is said to help prevent damping-off disease in seedlings , and the bark and gum can used in tanning hides.

The seeds of Moringa contain about 40% of a clear, odourless oil (known as Ben Oil) which is a good cooking oil and can be used for lubricating delicate machinery such as watches.  This oil can also be used for making soap, and it burns with a clear light and no smoke . It is made by browning the seeds in a pan, mashing them, putting the mash in boiling water and skimming off the oil.  The seed cake that is left over is useful as a protein-rich garden fertiliser.

With so many valuable qualities, no wonder the tree is commonly planted in Africa, often as a living fence. But there is yet another unusual feature of this tree that is currently being researched in several parts of the world.  This is its ability to act as a water purifier.  It has been found that the dried, crushed seeds act as a coagulant, binding impurities and bacteria in water so that they settle to the bottom, allowing the clean water to be poured off .  Only about 2 teaspoons of the dried seeds are required to treat a 10 litre bucket of water. Because of this unique quality, it is possible that the Moringa tree could be a key to solving the problem of unsafe drinking water in the developing world – a problem that is the root cause of many deaths and illnesses, particularly in children.

The Moringa tree is common throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, although it is probably native to India and Africa. These are some of its main characteristics:

• medium sized, fast growing to about 6 -10 metres • begins to bear within 1 – 2 years • deciduous, with drooping branches and many small leaflets • hardy, tolerant of drought and poor soils (its long tap root no doubt helps in this respect) • easy to propagate from seeds or cuttings, and long limb cuttings of 1 – 2 metre can be struck

• several varieties have been identified, with different shape and size fruit (pods)

I have seen the Moringa oleifera tree for sale at both Daley’s and Honnefs’s nurseries. Jude Lai had one growing at his property, the site of our last field trip.  Because it is such an interesting and multipurpose tree, it would be worthwhile for club members to plant one (or more) to test out its qualities and share information about its growth habits and uses. Inter Press Service, Washington DC, 2001