By  Aisha El-Awady

The Moringa Tree: Nature’s Pharmacy

Moringa tree

The resilient, fast growing Moringa tree is packed with so many vitamins and nutrients and has such a high nutritional value that it has been rightly dubbed by some as the miracle tree.The Miracle Tree

All parts of this scruffy looking tree are edible; the leaves can be eaten raw, cooked like spinach or made into a powder that can be added to sauces, soups or chowders. The new leaves have a tendency to appear towards the end of the dry season when few other sources of green leafy vegetables are available. The young, green pods can be eaten whole and are comparable in taste to asparagus. The older pods can be used for their seeds, which can be prepared as peas or roasted and eaten like peanuts. The flowers which bloom around 8 months after the tree is planted, can be eaten fried and have the taste and texture of mushrooms. In Hawaii, the flowers are used to make a tea that cures colds. In addition to this, the flowers are a year- round source of nectar and can be used by beekeepers.

When the pods mature and turn brown, the seeds can be removed and pressed to extract high quality oil similar to olive oil rich in oleic acid (73%). The mature seed contains about 40% oil. The oil, which is known as Ben oil, can be used for cooking, lubrication, in soaps, lamps and perfumes. The oil was highly valued by ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and was used in perfumes and for skin protection; it was also used in Europe in the 19th century for the same purpose and was imported from the West Indies. The taproot of young trees can be used to make a spice resembling horseradish when vinegar and salt are added to it.

Not only is the Moringa oleifera tree extraordinary in that all parts of the tree are edible, but the most amazing aspect of the tree is its exceptionally high nutritional value. The leaves of the Moringa tree are an excellent source of vitamin A (four times the amount in carrots), the raw leaves are rich in vitamin C (seven times the amount in oranges), and they are also a good source of vitamin B and other minerals. The leaves are also an outstanding source of calcium (four times the amount in milk), protein (twice the amount in milk), and potassium (three time the amount in bananas). The content of iron is very good as well and the leaves have purportedly been used for treating anaemia in the Philippines. The content of amino acids such as methionine and cystine is also high. Carbohydrates, fats and phosphorous content are low making this one of the finest plant foods to be found.

Africa’s Solution to Malnutrition?

Moringa olefeira flowers

These qualities have made the Moringa oleifera tree a candidate in the fight against malnutrition. A group of health workers from the Church World Service have been utilizing this highly nutritious and fast growing tree as a means to cure and prevent malnutrition in infants, pregnant and lactating women as an alternative to the classic and expensive condiments usually used such as whole milk powder, sugar, vegetable oil, and sometimes peanut butter. It takes around ten days to see an improvement in malnourished infants when Moringa leaves are used whereas it takes months for recovery with conventional methods.

According to Dr. Lowell Fuglie, the West Africa representative of the Church World Service who used the Moringa tree as a base for a nutrition program, “for a child aged 1-3, a 100 g serving of fresh cooked leaves would provide all his daily requirements of calcium, about 75% of his iron and half his protein needs, as well as important amounts of potassium, B vitamins, copper and all the essential amino acids. As little as 20 grams of leaves would provide a child with all the vitamins A and C he needs.”

“For pregnant and breast-feeding women, Moringa leaves and pods can do much to preserve the mother’s health and pass on strength to the fetus or nursing child. One 100 g portion of leaves could provide a woman with over a third of her daily need of calcium and give her important quantities of iron, protein, copper, sulfur and B-vitamins.”

“One rounded tablespoon (8 g) of leaf powder will satisfy about 14% of the protein, 40% of the calcium, and 23% of the iron and nearly all the vitamin A needs for a child aged 1-3. Six rounded spoonfuls of leaf powder will satisfy nearly all of a woman’s daily iron and calcium needs during pregnancy and breast-feeding.”

Water Purification

Left – whole seed and seed powder; right – presscake remaining following oil extraction

The Moringa tree has other extraordinary qualities; the powder from ground Moringa seeds and the presscake left over from oil extraction have the ability to clear murky water as it acts as a coagulant which attaches to particulate matter and bacteria in the water and falls to the bottom of the container. The purified water can then be poured out and boiled. This method has been used for centuries domestically and has recently been tried commercially and was found to be equally efficient to, if not surpassing, alum which is usually used and at a fraction of the cost.

Practical Uses

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 and in some medicines. The wood can be used to make a blue dye and can also be used as firewood. The flowers and roots of Moringa trees contain a powerful antibiotic known as pterygospermin, which also has fungicidal properties. An effective plant growth hormone can be extracted from fresh leaves and has been found to increase crop yields by up to 25-30%, and the leaves can also be used as a green manure to enrich farmlands.

Mother’s Best Friend

The family Moringaceae contains 14 species of Moringa trees. Moringa oleifera, is a drought tolerant tree, and is the best-known member of this family. It is native to sub-Himalayan regions of northern India and is distributed all over the world in tropics and sub tropics. Moringa stenopetala, which produces larger seed and leaves than M. oleifera, inhabits Ethiopia and northern Kenya. M. peregrina is native in Egypt, Sudan, and the Arabian Peninsula and as far north as the Dead Sea. M. ovalifolia is found in Angola and Namibia.

The tree has many different names. It is called the drumstick tree in India due to the long pods, or the horseradish tree as the roots may be used to make a spice resembling horseradish. In some parts of the world it is known as ‘Mother’s best friend’. In Senegal, it is known as Nebeday, which means “Never Die,” because the tree is outstandingly hearty. It is also known as the Ben Oil tree; the Benzolive tree in Haiti; Marum in Thailand; Yoruba in Nigeria and Malunggay in the Philippines.

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Aisha El-Awady M.D is an editor at the Health and Science section of IslamOnline.net. She is currently working as Lecturer of Parasitology at the Faculty of Medicine, Cairo University. She may be contacted at [email protected]