Climate change means a kind of climate confusion here in Hawai‘i. Drought is a constant threat, though our former dry seasons are often very wet. Tropical rainstorms can become flash floods and hurricane season seems longer and more threatening. Despite of all these issues, we want to continue to grow beautiful, healthy plants. This leads us to seek ones that have proven hearty in adverse conditions. One of these is the moringa tree. This drought tolerant plant can grow into an attractive shape with pretty flowers as well as leaves and seedpods that have many uses.
Moringa oleifera is in the Moringaceae family. These trees have been grown throughout the tropics, for millennia, but are likely native to dry areas of India and Pakistan. Moringas are known by many different common names around the globe based primarily on their principle use in that region. In some countries, the roots of the Moringa are harvested and used in place of horseradish, thus the name horseradish tree. The size and shape of the moringa’s seedpod gives it the common name drumstick tree in other countries. Another common name is the ben oil tree named for the high-quality oil that some cultures extract from the seeds. This oil is comparable to olive oil in flavor and properties, but has been used historically to lubricate watches and clocks.
Dr. William Hillebrand planted the first moringa in Hawai‘i around 1860 on his property in Honolulu. Though his land later became Foster Botanical Garden, seeds from his tree did not survive. About fifty years later Jose Magpoing brought seeds to Hawai‘i from his favorite moringa tree in the Philippines. The trees from his seeds are the parents of most of the moringa trees growing in Hawai‘i today.
Moringa trees are most often grown for their edible leaves, pods and seeds but are also attractive and useful plants for a small landscape. The trees have a lovely slender form with drooping branches and small compound dark green leaves. Their delicate foliage provides a textured accent and light shade.
Moringa trees also produce clusters of slightly fragrant, small, cream colored flowers year-round. The flowers are followed by long, ribbed green seedpods. The young pods are often prepared like string beans and used in stews, soups and curries. If left on the tree they can grow up to twenty inches long as they mature and turn brown.
The trees rarely grow over thirty feet tall, but they are easy to prune to keep them small and encourage new leaf and pod production. They are also often pruned to harvest leaves or pods for consumption. Beyond pruning, moringa requires little care, as few pests are attracted to this tree. Insects or diseases that do occur can be easily treated with oils and soaps or sulfur.
New moringas can be grown from either seeds or cuttings. Harvest seeds from mature dry pods, place them in a potting mix that drains well but maintains moisture. Seeds will usually germinate within two weeks and grow rapidly. For cutting success, choose plant stems that are between ten inches and three feet long. Dip the bottom of the stems in a rooting hormone and place them in a media that you can keep moist until they produce a root system and new leaves appear.
Once new leaves begin to grow, your seedlings or cuttings can be planted out, preferably into a hot, sunny location with soil that drains well. Moringa trees grow best at locations below 1000 feet in elevation and away from salt spray or strong winds that can break their brittle branches. Moringa trees grown from seed will have a long taproot and are more wind resistant. To use them as windbreaks or living fence posts, it is best to maintain the tree at four feet tall or less thus encouraging strong lateral growth.
Moringa leaves and pods provide nutritious food in many cultures. The leaves contain 20 to 35 % protein as well as ample amounts of essential amino acids, vitamins A and C as well as calcium and potassium. You can buy the dried leaves at many health food stores or you can harvest and eat those you grow. Local homeowners often grow several moringa trees to provide an adequate supply of nutritious food. Some simply put the fresh leaves in smoothies or salads. In many cultures, the leaves are used in a variety of dishes either fresh or dried. Recipes including those for the young pods are available online especially from the cuisines of India, Thailand and the Philippines. In Malaysia, the seeds are roasted and eaten like peanuts.
The National Institute of Health noticed the many favorable characteristics of moringa when in 2008 they named moringa the Plant of the Year. They declared, “Moringa has the potential to help reverse multiple major environmental problems and provide for many unmet human needs.”
Many of the uses of moringa including information on the ben oil that can be pressed from its seeds are available in the book edited by Craig Elevitch Specialty Crops for Pacific Islands. The 12-page chapter on moringa by the University of Hawai‘i’s Dr. Ted Radovich is very informative and is available as a pdf at www.moringainhawaii.org/background-information-about-moringa. In the article, Radovich compares ben oil to olive oil in taste. He also recommends seeking ways to press the oil for local use. The seed cake that results from pressing can be used as a fertilizer.
In some countries, Moringa leaves are added to animal feed, substituting for up to 45% of the feed. Moringa bark contains useful fiber for making mats, paper or cordage and the can be used to make a blue dye. Moringa also has medicinal qualities. For example, the seeds contain a natural antibiotic and moringa extracts have both antifungal and anti-bacterial qualities. That’s just the beginning of the story.
Several local nurseries carry moringa trees and moringa seeds and other products are widely available online and at local health food stores.
Whether you want to plant a small tree with many uses or are simply seeking an interesting and attractive specimen plant, you may choose to grow a moringa tree on your property. You will likely be happy with your choice.
Diana Duff, Plant Adviser, Educator, and Consultant; Lives in Manoa Valley
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