Moringa oleifera, also know colloquially as the miracle tree, is a fast-growing, semi-deciduous tree that hails from the Himalayan foothills. It has been used for millennia, with recent years seeing a surge in its popularity. M. oleifera is now cultivated in most warm climates, and the tree is rapidly gaining a foothold in South African agriculture.
Moringa has developed an impressive following the last few decades, with disciples praising its miraculous properties.
All parts of the plant can be used. The roots are used as a medicine or to prepare a peppery sauce similar to horseradish. The wood of the tree is soft and therefore does not make good timber, but makes good paper and could serve as a potential source of biofuel.
A large proportion of moringa cultivation in India is to produce seedpods. The immature seedpods, called drumsticks, are eaten as a favourite vegetable in the region and in many parts of the tropics. Older pods can be harvested for the green seeds, which may be eaten as peas, while dried pods are harvested for their valuable oil (20-25% seed weight).
Moringa oil, called ben oil, has a fatty acid composition similar to olive oil, but many times more stable. It is popularly used in perfumes and may be used in cosmetics, soaps as well as culinary purposes. Refined oil makes a superb lubricant, which was formerly used to lubricate the delicate mechanisms of watches and clockwork.
The pressed seed cake obtained from oil extraction is not suited for feed (without processing), although it does make a fine green fertiliser. The seed cake may also be employed as a water clarifier. As it contains cationic proteins, moringa can remove impurities and bacteria from the water. In some trials, it performed on par with alum, the aluminum-based compound currently used in water treatment.
- Moringa is commonly processed into a powder form that can be added to health foods such as smoothies.
- Moringa seeds are commonly used as food in India.
The leaves of moringa are a powerhouse of nutrients and can be used fresh or dried. Dried leaves can contain 25-30% protein. It also contains 46 antioxidants, ten times the vitamin A of carrots, half the vitamin C of oranges, 15 times the potassium of bananas, 25 times the iron of spinach and 17 times the calcium of milk, to name a few.
Moringa provides good, slow release energy and is said to stabilise both blood pressure and blood sugar when consumed regularly, along with many other health benefits. The leaves can be eaten fresh in salads or on sandwiches (it goes well with a good cheese) and the leaf may be a tasty addition to soups, stews and stir-fries, used in a similar way to spinach.
The dried leaf can be used as a vegetable multivitamin, taken either in loose powder form or in capsules, or processed into different products as a nutrient-boosting ingredient (including breads, herbal salts, kombucha and tea). The loose powder can be added to all kinds of dishes as well as smoothies, or used as a garnish sprinkled over food.
Adding even small amounts of moringa to your diet is beneficial, as green leafy vegetables are extremely valuable for overall health. Capsules made from high-quality powder make it convenient to get a serving of green in just a few pills, something that has certainly become a valuable component of my early mornings.
Moringa is not just good for humans, but for livestock too. In some areas people will tell you that moringa makes game and livestock produce twins. Although this is anecdotal, it will certainly help with feeding any potential twins.
Unimproved cows in South America produced up to two thirds more milk with the addition of moringa in their diet. It will improve weight gain in weaned calves, with a similar study finding that daily gains were up to 25% more when fed moringa. Of course, due to its high protein content, it must never make up more than half of the animal’s diet. Fortunately, moringa will not lead to bloating.
Goats cannot resist moringa – goat farmers not planting the trees as a fodder crop are missing out on an opportunity to reduce food costs and improve their animals’ health and overall performance.
There are already commercial moringa horse supplements, with some people reporting that as little as 30g of dried moringa added to a horse’s diet will visibly improve condition and well-being. Supplementation is especially recommended for lactating mares.
Some animals will not eat fresh moringa leaves, yet will happily eat dried leaves or pellets. Though cooking moringa mash for pelleting will destroy some vitamins, it will increase the bioavailable protein content. For fish, poultry and pigs, it can make a valuable supplement or major feed component when treated with a commercially available enzyme such as phytase.
The trees are relatively drought-hardy and will flourish even in marginal areas if its basic needs are met. It may be grown in areas that receive anything from 250mm of rainfall and upwards. Moderate irrigation will see the trees thrive.
Moringa adapts to a wide variety of soil types – preferably deep, sandy loam – although it will not appreciate shallow soils or clay. It can, however, still be grown on them if soil preparation is adequate. The plant likes free-draining soil and will greatly benefit from generous amounts of organic matter in the soil, as well as cultural practices such as mulching.
A wide range of soil pH can be tolerated, but a pH of between 6,5-8 is considered optimal. Cow manure is a great fertiliser for trees, though commercial fertilisers may be used. Treating moringa with beneficial microbial preparations has a visible effect on performance and tree health.
The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) considers moringa naturalised in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, which gives a good indication of where it will thrive. Moringa is a warm climate crop, yet can be grown in sub-tropical climates that experience light frost, especially if it can be protected.
Not prone to pests
Frost can kill even an adult tree right down to the rootstock. (In areas such as ours where frost occurs, mulching is an essential tool for protecting the rootstock and thus the survival of trees, which will produce many new shoots from the base of the stem come spring.) Severe cold will quickly kill trees.
Moringa is not prone to pests, though some caterpillars will attack the leaves. The biggest threat comes from root rot, but this can easily be overcome by ensuring the soil is free-draining.
Trees can be seeded directly, or planted out as saplings. The seeds will emerge in ten days if soil conditions are adequate. Cropping of moringa can be done in several ways, depending on the purpose of production. Often trees are planted in an orchard setup, spaced anywhere from 0,9 to two metres apart, in rows one to two metres apart. This cropping system can be employed for seed pod and leaf production, and requires little in terms of maintenance.
Moringa’s bushy growth from regular pruning and the light shade it provides make it ideal for alley cropping. It can be planted one to 1,5 metres apart in rows three metres apart, and the rows interplanted with vegetables (especially leaf crops). In countries such as Zimbabwe, moringa is often planted as a living fence, and will serve as a good windbreak for other crops in diversified systems.
High intensity production systems
Moringa can be grown in mixed orchards, and this is an easy way to obtain harvests (and therefore returns) as you wait for the other trees to mature. In high intensity production systems, geared towards leaf production, trees can be planted up to 10cm x 10cm apart (i.e. a million plants per hectare). In one such trial over 174 tons of green leaves were harvested over the course of a season.
High intensity production systems require a lot of care to keep the trees happy, lots of fertiliser to keep them growing, and will inevitably lead to some mortality, generally after every pruning. Moringa can reach three metres in as little as three to four months, if the plant is happy.
Harvesting and processing
Harvesting of moringa leaves can be done as early as 60 days after planting, after which it is harvested every four to five weeks after that. Good practice is to prune the trees short, to encourage branching and keep them within easy reach.
Moringa trees can be harvested for many years. The leaves are generally harvested manually, then washed, the leaflets separated from the leafstalk and moved to drying racks. Many drying systems have been employed, and can consist of infrared lighting, fans, ovens and freeze drying, although it can simply be dried in traditional herb racks.
The leaflets should be dried away from direct sunlight or strong light, to retain nutrients and preserve colour. For good quality moringa, the leaflets should be dried within 24 hours, with temperatures not exceeding 50°C. Moringa powder should be bright green, a good visual guide for determining quality.
The moringa market
The market has seen a surge in recent years, with India still being the largest producer. India has had an annual export of 8 000 tons of dried moringa leaf, and expects a staggering annual growth of up to 30%. They predict the market to be worth over R10 billion by 2020.
Other countries are quickly gaining ground in moringa production, with a few African countries having already entered the international market, including Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa.
Establishing global figures of moringa value and production remains difficult, however, with a lot of production happening in the informal economy, or by smallholders, and with very few organised moringa associations. This will rapidly change as more commercial enterprises are entering the sector, impressed by its properties and high yields. Europe, the United States and China are currently the largest markets for exports, but local demand should not be dismissed.
Moringa is rapidly entering the mainstream markets, as more people are becoming aware of the many benefits this tree can provide. As it is well suited to growing in large parts of South Africa and Africa, it will certainly become a fundamental part of agriculture in this country and continent.
Besides the healthy returns that can be provided to farmers, it will be invaluable in alleviating the widespread malnutrition so persistent on our continent, especially among children. This can only be done if moringa is incorporated into local diets, which requires a lot of production of moringa and fervent preaching of its many benefits. Join the choir, grow the plant, eat the leaves, and lets all sing the praises of the miracle tree.
Credit – Arné Verhoef, HempHub