Moringa oleifera – a definite candidate for our food forest

This morning I was reading an update from the Evolution in Motion Team about developments at the Permaculture Demonstration Farm at Phnom Katch Phkar in Battambang Province in western Cambodia and came across a mention of the Moringa tree – also known as the Drumstick Tree, Kelor Tree (Pokok Kelor in Indonesia), and a whole lot of other names.  I’d read about this tree before and been impressed by its many uses, but in thinking about species for our food forest it had completely slipped my mind.

Leaves of Moringa oleifera (source: http://www.burmanbioenergy.com)

Well, one thing led to another, as it does when you start reading something on the internet, and I came across a very useful report on the Moringa tree (scientific name Moringa oleifera) in Australia put out by Biosecurity Queensland in 2010.  The report is actually a weed risk assessment of the species (they find it presents a low risk), but contains the most useful summary of information about the species that I’ve found.  The report is available as a pdf file here.

I’ve taken the liberty of putting their description of the uses of Moringa (they call it the Horseradish Tree) below.  There’s a full citation at the bottom of the quote, but the following is from pages 14 and 15 of Navie and Csurhes (2010).

>>Moringa oleifera has been used for such a wide variety of purposes that it has been described  as a ‘miracle tree’. It is grown in many parts of the world as a ‘vegetable tree’, with the roots,  leaves, flowers and fruit all being used for food (Lu & Olson 2001). The leaves are probably  the most widely used part, being compared to spinach in appearance and nutritional  quality (Papillo 2007). Because  M. oleifera produces leaves during the dry season and  during drought, it is seen as a particularly useful green vegetable in developing countries  when little other food is available (Folkard & Sutherland 1996). Its leaves and pods have  considerable nutritional value, yielding many vitamins and minerals (Soto 2006), and the  leaves can be eaten either cooked or dried (Papillo 2007). The fruit, or ‘drumsticks’, are  cooked like green beans and have a similar flavour to asparagus (HDRA 2002). In India, they  are grown commercially for this purpose and are canned and exported to other parts of the  world (Papillo 2007). The green seeds, which are much like peas, and the surrounding white  material in the fruit can be removed from mature pods and either boiled or fried (Price 2000).

The roots have a pungent taste and are used as a substitute for horseradish, hence the common  name ‘horseradish tree’. However, the root bark has to be scraped off, as it contains two  alkaloids and the toxin moringinine (Price 2000). The flowers and immature fruit are used to  flavour curries (Qaiser 1973) and the gum in the bark is also used to season food (HDRA 2002).

Several parts of the plant are also used in native medicines and folk remedies for the  treatment of ear, eye and bronchial complaints, skin infections, fevers, stomach ulcers,  diarrhoea, syphilis and nervous disorders (Qaiser 1973; Price 2000; EcoPort 2007). For  example, the juice from the leaves is believed to stabilise blood pressure, the flowers are  used to cure inflammations, the pods are used for joint pain, the roots are used to treat  rheumatism, and the bark can be chewed as a digestive (Papillo 2007). This is just a small  selection of the wide range of ailments for which  M. oleifera has been promoted as an  effective medicine (HDRA 2002; Fahey 2005). It has also been widely described as having  antibiotic properties and being a cancer preventative (Fahey 2005). Few rigorous scientific  studies have been conducted to confirm these reports; however, a compound contained  in the flowers and roots, pterygospermin, has been found to have powerful antibiotic and  fungicidal properties (Price 2000).

It is also highly prized as a fodder tree in developing countries, where its leaves are fed to  cattle, sheep, camels, goats, pigs, poultry and donkeys (RBG Kew 1999; HDRA 2002). The  branches are often lopped for fodder, and animals are also known to browse the bark and young  shoots of this species (Qaiser 1973; HDRA 2002).  Moringa oleifera is used as a green manure in  developing countries, where it is said to significantly enrich agricultural land (Price 2000).

The wood is a good fuel for cooking and other purposes (HDRA 2002), and yields a blue dye  (Duke 1983). Woodchippings can also be used to make a good quality paper (HDRA 2002).  The bark can be used as an agent for tanning hides (Duke 1983; Soto 2006) and can also be  beaten into a coarse fibre that can be used to make rope or mats (HDRA 2002). The viscose  resin that is exuded from the bark is used in the textile industry (HDRA 2002).

The crushed leaves are also used as a domestic cleaning agent in developing countries,  being employed to clean cooking utensils and even walls (HDRA 2002).  Moringa oleifera also  provides nectar to honey bees for a long period of the year (ICRAF 2001; HDRA 2002).

Moringa oleifera has also been employed for erosion control in areas where strong winds and  long, dry spells occur simultaneously (ICRAF 2001). Because it grows very quickly it is often  planted as a living fence or windbreak in developing countries (HDRA 2002; Papillo 2007). In  Australia and other parts of the world it is also cultivated as an ornamental or for shade and  shelter (GRIN 2007).

However, the seeds are probably the most useful part of the plant. The oil that is extracted  from them, which is sometimes known as ‘ben oil’, is used for a wide variety of purposes  (Qaiser 1973; Stanley 1982). They also contain a powerful flocculant, which is used for  clarifying turbid water in developing countries (Lu & Olson 2001).

The seeds contain about 35–40% oil. This oil is of excellent quality, similar to olive oil, and is  slow to become rancid (Price 2000). It is used as a fuel for cooking purposes and burnt for light  in developing countries (HDRA 2002). It is also used in perfumes, as a lubricant in watches  and other fine machinery, and for making soap (Qaiser 1973; Stanley 1982; Price 2000).

The press-cake remaining after oil extraction has been shown to retain the active ingredients  for coagulation, making it a marketable commodity as a flocculant. It can be used as a quick  and simple method for cleaning dirty river water in developing countries (HDRA 2002). In  fact,  Moringa oleifera has been compared to alum in its effectiveness at removing suspended  solids from turbid water (Papillo 2007). It can also be used to harvest algae from waste  water, currently an expensive process using centrifuges (Price 2000). The press-cake also  contains high levels of protein and makes and excellent stockfeed or a good fertiliser for use  in agriculture (HDRA 2002; Brockman 2007).

In Australia, and other parts of the world, the greatest potential for this species is currently  thought to be in its cultivation for the production of biofuel. Yields of about 10 metric tonnes  of pods per hectare per year are thought to be achievable for this species (Duke 1983). It has  been suggested that this would equate to between 1000 and 2000 litres of biodiesel per  hectare per annum (Brockman 2007). Very high yields of oil have already been produced in  overseas situations, but it has not yet been widely trialled in Australia (O’Connell et al. 2007).  However, trials were recently initiated in south-western Western Australia and at Carnarvon,  and are also planned for the Pilbarra region (Low a& Booth 2007; SWCC 2007).

It is particularly desirable because it is a very low water-use crop and may be cultivated  on marginal land (i.e. in semi-arid areas, on poor soils and in saline areas) (Soto 2006;  Brockman 2007; SWCC 2007).  Moringa oleifera is being grown commercially on at least  one farm at Bowen in northern Queensland. The vegetable products of this crop are being  supplied to consumers in southern Australia, no doubt largely those from expatriate Asian  communities (Soto 2006). Production of these vegetable products in this region is about 35  tonnes per hectare per year (Soto 2006).

In other parts of the world,  Moringa oleifera is most commonly and quickly cultivated by  cuttings. Ideally, these should be taken from healthy branches containing hard wood in the  rainy season and be between 0.5 and 2 m in length (HDRA 2002). Frequent pruning of the  growth tips of cultivated plants will maintain and increase leaf growth and control the height  of the tree, making harvesting of the leaves and fruit easier (HDRA 2002).<< Source: Navie, S. and S. Csurhes (2010).  Weed Risk Assessment – Horseradish Tree, Moringa oleifera. Biosecurity Queensland, Brisbane. pp.14-15.  The references for the publications cited above are in the report here.

Cut seeds

Seeds of Moringa oleifera (photo: Aravind Sivaraj, Creative Commons Share Alike)

Some Useful Links

Wikipedia entry:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moringa_oleifera

Gallery of photos (Indonesian):  http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokok_Kelor

Gardening Australia Factsheet:  http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s1345822.htm

Growing and cooking tips:  http://www.daleysfruit.com.au/Herbs/horseradish.htm

Additional information:  http://www.newcrops.uq.edu.au/newslett/ncnl9192.htm

A really good slideshow:  http://www.treesforlife.org/sites/default/files/documents/Moringa%20Presentation%20%28General%29%20screen.pdf

Overview facts:  http://www.treesforlife.org/our-work/our-initiatives/moringa

2 thoughts on “Moringa oleifera – a definite candidate for our food forest

  1. Thanks Druce. Good to see that the comment process problem might be solved – maybe WordPress approval/spam protection measures were causing the problem.
    I hadn’t thought of planting seeds – but only because the information about the species’ fast growth rate hadn’t sunk in. I’ll be looking for it on eBay in the near future. Our food forest is some way off yet – still clearing the trees off the area, then have to take the levels and do a plan – planning an initial post on food forests some time in the next couple of months. Nevertheless I’m compiling the plant list and have some curry leaf (Murraya koenigii) seedlings in pots.

  2. Moringa at Crosby: I planted seeds purchased on Ebay on Australia Day this year. All germinated except for one runt of a seed. The tallest is now 1.4m. One plant was a garden-warming gift to friends who were born and bred in India. Girish told me he knew the plant well and disliked the smell of the leaves because crushed leaves were used as a cure for acne! The flocculating property of the crushed seeds may provide a solution to clarifying sugar cane juice for organic sugar production.

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