Winters in Kona are usually drier than summers. But now we have climate change. Though we can’t be sure this winter will be dry, we can at least research some useful plants that will survive dry periods. The moringa tree is one of these. It has numerous uses and, once established, can thrive on very limited water.
Moringa oleifera is known by many different common names, most of them refer to its various uses. The tree is in the Moringaceae family which is also known as the horseradish-tree family. It is aptly named, as the roots of the moringa are harvested in some countries and used in place of horseradish. Moringa is also commonly called the drumstick tree based on the size and shape of the pod shaped fruit that it produces. This too is edible and the young pods are often prepared like string beans or used in soups, stews or curries. Another common name is the ben oil tree named for the high quality oil that can be extracted from the seeds. Comparable to olive oil in flavor and properties, it was historically used to lubricate watches and clocks.
Though moringa trees have been grown throughout the tropics for millennia, it is likely that it is native to dry areas of India and Pakistan. It did not arrive in Hawaii, however, until William Hillegrand planted it on his property in Honolulu around 1860. Though his land later became Foster Botanical Garden, seeds from his tree did not survive. When Jose Magpoing arrived in Hawaii from the Philippines in 1909, he brought seeds from his favorite moringa tree smuggled inside his guitar. These “guitar seeds” grew into the parents of most of the trees found today in Hawaii.
Moringa trees are most often grown for their edible leaves, pods and seeds but are also attractive as well as 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.
Several other features render moringa an interesting specimen plant. It produces clusters of small white-to-cream colored flowers year-round that are slightly fragrant, and it produces long ribbed bean pods following flowers. The pods are green when young and become very long, 14 to 20 inches, as they mature and turn brown.
The trees usually don’t exceed 30 feet in height, but most people who grow them prefer to prune them heavily to keep them small and continually producing new leaves and more pods. This severe pruning is called coppicing. Beyond pruning, moringa requires little care as few pests are attracted to this tree and those that are can be easily treated with oils, soaps and sulfur.
Moringa trees are easy to grow from either seeds or cuttings. Seeds removed from dried pods will usually germinate in two weeks or less and grow rapidly. The best success from cuttings can be achieved using wood that is at least one year old and is woody or semi-woody. Good results have been reported from cuttings as short as 10 inches and as along as 5 feet. Cuttings must be started in a moist, not wet, media because moringa is soft wood that is apt to rot in wet soil.
Once the seedlings or cuttings have put out new leaves, they can be transplanted out, preferably to a hot, sunny location with soil that drains well. Here in Kona, moringa trees will grow best at locations below 1,000 feet in elevation and away from salt spray or strong winds that can break their brittle branches. In some locations, moringa trees can serve as windbreaks or even living fence posts. They will withstand wind best when they are grown from seed so they can develop a long and strong tap root. For windbreak use, it is best to top the tree at about 4 feet tall to encourage strong lateral growth.
Here in Hawaii, many homeowners plant one or two moringa trees to provide nutritious food. The dried leaves contain 20 to 35 percent protein as well as ample amounts of essential amino acids, vitamins A and C as well as calcium and potassium. Because of their high protein value, the leaves are also dried and sold commercially. Many cultures eat the foliage in salads or use the leaves to flavor curries. Recipes including the young pods can be found in many countries including India, Thailand and the Philippines. In Malaysia, the seeds are roasted and eaten as a snack, like peanuts.
Ben oil can be extracted from moringa seeds in many ways. Several extraction techniques as well as a wealth of information about Moringa oleifera and its oil can be found in “Specialty Crops for Pacific Islands” edited by Craig Elevitch. The chapter on moringa by Ted Radovich is highly informative and can be read or downloaded at ctahr.hawaii.edu/radovichT/downloads/Moringa_specialty_crop.pdf. Radovich recommends that local growers seek collective ways to press the oil for local use. The seed cake that results from pressing is also useful as a fertilizer and a flocculent.
Moringa leaves can be substituted for up to 45 percent of animal feed. The bark contains useful fiber for making mats, paper or cordage as well as sap that is useful as a blue dye. Most moringa plant parts also have medicinal qualities. The seeds contain a natural antibiotic and extracts of moringa have both antifungal and antibacterial qualities.
Several local sources for moringa trees and products exist. Kona Moringa sells seedlings and offers information and moringa products including tea, powder and oil. They have a booth at the Saturday Farmers Market in the Keauhou Shopping Center and can be contacted through konamoringa.com or at 315-2917. Tropical Edibles Nursery also has seedlings for sale: 328-0420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Other nurseries may occasionally carry moringa. Call around to find them at a nursery near you.
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.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer as well as a plant adviser and consultant.