‘To be poor and be without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees, is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.’
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés, American poet.
Many communities in Africa today continue to struggle with the ever-increasing burden of famine and malnutrition. Moreover, although hunger is mainly a concern of poverty stricken areas, malnutrition is also becoming an epidemic even in affluent societies where processed and refined foods have become the staple diet. Something must be done. Moringa has been used for its health benefits for centuries and contains so many medicinal compounds and nutrients that it has been dubbed by many as ‘the miracle tree of hope’
A POTENTIAL ANSWER
Man’s arrogance, and his greed for taste, convenience and profit, has created widespread ignorance of the nutritional content, medicinal value and sustainability of plants Mother Nature has provided for us.
A striking example of a sustainable answer to hunger and malnutrition is the remarkable moringa tree (Moringa oleifera). The whole tree is edible, which means the leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seeds and roots can all be used to make medicine and alleviate malnutrition, among many other practical uses.
The moringa is resilient, drought-resistant and fast-growing, sprouting from seed to tree in just 10 months. The plant family consists of 14 species of moringa trees, and Moringa oleifera is the best-known member of this plant family. Known as the drumstick tree, moringa is particularly promising as a food source in the tropics, since the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are scarce. It is already an important crop in India (its largest producer), Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sudan.
THE POWER OF MORINGA
The many uses of the moringa tree, ranging from nutritional value to cosmetic pampering, have rendered this incredible plant a highly valuable sustainable source of life. It is a veritable powerhouse of health from the tips of its leaves down to its roots.
Moringa trees have been successfully used worldwide to combat undernourishment and malnutrition, especially in infants and pregnant and nursing mothers.
The fresh, raw leaves of the moringa tree are the most nutritious part of the plant as they are rich in beta-carotene (four times more than carrots) and so an excellent source of provitamin A. They are seven times richer in vitamin C than oranges and also provide vitamin B, especially vitamin B6. They contain other minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, copper, selenium and manganese. Iron needs vitamin C for proper absorption, moringa is therefore an excellent source of absorbable iron. The leaves are rich in calcium – four times the amount in milk and their protein quality equals that of milk and eggs, with the protein content double the amount found in milk. The moringa leaves are about 40% protein, with all of the nine essential amino acids present in various amounts, making it a complete protein source.
Moringa is considered to have the highest protein ratio of all the plants studied on earth so far! Since dried powdered leaves are concentrated, they contain even higher amounts of many of these nutrients.
GROW YOUR OWN
Moringa leaves can be produced intensively in a family-sized small garden with seeds spaced as closely as 10 cm apart. When the plants reach a height of a meter, they can be cut down to a height of 30 cm. The leaves can be stripped from the stems and used, while the stems can be fed to livestock. The stumps survive the harvest and will re-sprout, allowing another harvest in as little as 50 days. A moringa garden can thus continually produce green matter for several years with very little labour. It grows best in dry, sandy soil but can tolerate poor soil, including coastal soils. Moringa is a sun- and heat-loving plant and does not tolerate frost. It prefers dry regions and can be grown using rainwater without expensive irrigation techniques. In South Africa, moringa cultivation would be best suited to Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. Leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked or stored as a dried powder for many months without refrigeration, and reportedly with no loss of nutritional value during storage.
All parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine in several countries to treat a variety of maladies such as blood pressure, diabetes, anaemia, arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, ulcers, epilepsy, headaches, heart problems, kidney stones, low sex drive, blindness, fluid retention, thyroid disorders and cancer as well as bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections. The powdered leaves are used as a nutritional supplement or tonic. Moringa is sometimes applied directly to the skin as an antiseptic or astringent (drying agent). It is also used topically for treating abscesses, athlete’s foot, dandruff, gum disease, snakebites, warts and wounds.
Moringa leaves are given to nursing mothers to increase lactation, and it is a popular weaning food for infants to combat malnutrition; the tree is often referred to as ‘Mother’s best friend’.
The powdered seeds are used to clarify honey and sugarcane juice and the year-round flowers provide nectar for honey production.
The powder from ground moringa seeds and the press cake left over from oil extraction are used to purify water and remove salt from seawater. The powder adheres to particles and bacteria in the water and falls to the bottom of the container. The purified water is then poured out and boiled. This method has been used for centuries domestically and recently commercially when it was found to be as efficient as, if not better, than alum, which is usually used and at a greater cost.
Oil extracted from the seeds, known as Ben oil, is used in food, perfume, hair care products, as a comestic oil, and as a machine lubricant. The crushed leaves can be used as a domestic cleaning agent while the living plants are used for fencing and ornamental plantings. The bark of the tree can be used to make mats or rope and in tanning hides. The gum from the cut tree trunks is used in calico printing. The wood can be used as firewood, pulp for paper and to make a blue dye.
In Southern Ethiopia, the moringa actually has a distinct social value: when a boy proposes marriage, the girl’s family enquire whether or not the would-be groom has moringa trees on his farm!
In some regions, the young seed pods are most commonly eaten, while in others, the leaves. The leaves are cooked and used like spinach or cabbage, dried and powdered for use as a condiment in soups and sauces, steeped as tea, or used as a nutritional supplement. The tender leaves are chopped into curries, soups, omelettes and stir-fries or used as garnish for vegetable dishes and salads. They can also either replace or be used along with coriander. The leaves can also be processed with olive oil and salt for a pesto-like pasta sauce. The seeds are removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. They are also powdered and steeped for tea or used in curries.
The edible flowers, which taste like mushrooms, are used in omelettes and various other dishes and the roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, thus the common name ‘horseradish tree’.
1⁄4 cucumber, unpeeled
1 stick celery with its leaves, chopped
1⁄4 sweet pineapple, peeled and chopped
1 handful spinach and/or watercress
2 to 3 small sweet apples, chopped
5 cm piece fennel bulb or 3 fennel sprigs (optional)
flesh of half small ripe avocado
1 tbsp (15 ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) pitted dates, fresh or dried
1⁄4 cup (60 ml) coconut cream or milk (optional)
1 heaped tbsp (20 ml) moringa leaf powder
1 1⁄2 cups (375 ml) purified water
1 handful ice
Place all the ingredients in a power blender or liquidiser and blend until smooth. Thin down with more water if too thick.
Adapted from Naturally Nutritious Wholefood Cookbook by Heidi du Preez and Karen Werge Tilney.
Scientific research is confirming the potential properties of moringa. Anti-microbial activity and cancer prevention are two areas where classical scientific evidence appears to be particularly strong. The laboratory reports done on moringa’s toxicity and nutritional composition are sound: they do not find evidence of any inherent toxins. Mother Nature has neatly packaged every- thing we need for our nutritional well-being right in front of our eyes. We should invest in our native plants to address both poverty-based and ‘city/suburban slob’ malnutrition in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. The moringa tree is an excellent place to start.
- Fahey J.W. Moringa oleifera: a review of the medical evidence for its nutritional, therapeutic, and prophylactic prop- erties – Part 1. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Trees for Life Journal 2005, (1):5.
- Fuglie L.J. The moringa tree – a local solution to malnutrition? Training manual. Church World Service, Dakar, Senegal, 2005.