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Hope for the Future: The Moringa Tree
The Moringa genus is the only member of the Moringaceae family, and it encompasses a wide range of plants, including flowering herbs and trees. The best known species within the genus is Moringa oleifera, commonly known as Horseradish tree, Benzolive, Kelor or Drumstick tree; the latter name is because of the drumstick-like shape of the long, curved seed pods characteristic of this species. This tree is native to the area surrounding the Himalayas in India but can grow anywhere in tropical and semi-arid climates. It grows to about ten meters in height and produces leaves and pods even when water supplies are scarce, allowing it to thrive in arid climates where few other plants can survive. Best known for its exceptional usefulness as a food and medicinal plant, nearly every part of Moringa oleifera can be used in one way or another to benefit humans and provide food and other valuable materials for farming and fuel needs.
Read more about Moringa oleifera:
The pods and leaves of Moringa trees are used for food in numerous cultures throughout the world. First cultivated in Northern India, it was incorporated into a number of religious and cultural observances, some of which continue to this day. Oil derived from the seeds of the Moringa was used as food and in unguents by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and were part of the Ayurvedic health diet in India. The tree’s hardy nature and multitude of uses has led to its cultivation in many areas including the West Indies, where it is a valuable source of food and oil products. The leaves, flowers and seed pods of the tree are highly nutritional and provide a number of necessary nutrients, including protein, beta carotene, calcium and Vitamin C. Because the Moringa tree can be grown in a wide range of climates and requires little water in order to produce leaves, pods and flowers, it is well suited to provide nutrition in areas of the world where food is scarce, including Asia and Africa. Every part of the tree can be consumed or used by either humans or animals, making it even more useful for combating malnutrition in these areas of the world. This is especially important for young children, pregnant women and lactating mothers who require additional nutritional support during these critical formative stages. The calcium and other nutrients available in the plant products offer solid food value at a minimal cost for these high-risk individuals. A number of organizations also recommend the plant as a food source for AIDS patients, who may require additional vitamin and mineral supplements to remain relatively healthy due to their weakened immune systems.
One great advantage of the Moringa tree in providing food for undernourished populations is the exceptional shelf life of the foods provided. The leaves of the tree can be used fresh, cooked in the same way as spinach or dried and stored for months without requiring refrigeration. Fresh pods are known as drumsticks and are often served in much the same way as green beans; they typically are described as having a taste somewhat similar to asparagus. Dried leaves can be stirred into a sauce or consumed on their own depending on available dietary options. The dried leaves retain all or nearly all of their nutritional value, allowing storage even in tropical conditions. The leaves and seed pods are excellent botanical sources of protein, a nutrient that is often in short supply in developing regions. The protein present in the leaves is highly digestible and can be used as a supplemental food for infants; because the tree continues to bear leaves even at the end of the dry season, it is especially well suited to serve as a food source in semi-arid conditions like those found in much of Africa. The fresh leaves are an outstanding source of Vitamin C, while the dried leaf powder offers a more concentrated version of the same nutrients including about ten times the Vitamin A available from fresh carrots. Other vitamins and minerals present in the plant leaves and seed pods include high concentrations of calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and the B vitamins. Even in areas where food is relatively abundant, the exceptional nutritional content of these plants and seeds have led to their use in complete vitamin and mineral supplements.
To learn more about the Vitamins, Amino-acids, Minerals & Antioxidants in the Moringa vist Nutritional values page.
Moringa leaves, pods and roots have been used for centuries in Ayurveda treatments. Ayurveda tradition says that the plant offers remedies for 300 different conditions; as a result, its leaves and pods have been used in traditional Indian medical practices for anemia, high and low blood pressure, blood disorders, skin blemishes, fever and many other ailments. It has even been used to treat bronchitis and other respiratory disorders, as well as tuberculosis and cholera. Many Ayurvedic practitioners recommend a tonic of the leaves for liver disorders and childbirth discomfort, since a natural antibiotic action is present in the chemical components present in the leaves and seeds. Additionally, oil pressed from the seeds is used as a topical application for a variety of skin and muscle ailments. Moringa decoctions have also been used to treat intestinal worms and a variety of sexual ailments. In traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, the plant has also been used to treat eye and ear infections, diarrhea, joint pain, hysteria and glandular disorders and is considered to be a preventative measure for a number of different types of cancer, especially skin cancers and cancers of the digestive or glandular systems. It is also used to treat certain cancers after they manifest themselves.
Long overlooked by the medical establishment, the medical benefits of Moringa have only recently been explored in the scientific setting. A number of recent studies have shown evidence that the plant is useful in boosting the levels of certain antioxidant enzymes within the body and reducing the overall level of toxic substances retained in body tissue; this may reduce the risk of cancer in individuals who include this versatile plant in their daily diet. The plants contain a compound called pterygospermin that contains a powerful natural antibiotic and antimicrobial substance known as benzyl isothiocyanate. This antibiotic has been proven effective against Helicobacter pylori, one of the most pervasive microbial threats to residents of poverty stricken areas around the globe. Helicobacter pylori can cause gastritis and may be responsible for duodenal and gastric ulcerations, as well as gastric cancer. Benzyl isothiocyanate acts as a near-specific antibiotic counter to this microbe and can help to protect against the microbe’s negative effects on the body even at low dosages. Additionally, a study conducted by Bharali, Tabassum and Azad and published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention in 2003 showed a correlation between ingestion of benzyl isothiocyanate compounds and a reduction in skin cancer growths in mice. While further research is needed, the evidence for the pharmaceutical benefits of Moringa plant compounds continues to mount with further research.
To learn more about the medicinal uses of Moringa oleifera, visit the Medicinal Uses page.
Another use for the seed pods of the Moringa tree is in water purification and treatment processes. The crushed seeds serve as a coagulant that attracts suspended particles in the water and allows them to settle to the bottom, leaving pure, clean water at the top of the treatment container. The process requires mature seed pods rather than the immature ones preferred for cooking purposes. The seeds are removed from the shell and the seed coats are removed; any discolored or misshapen seeds are discarded during this phase, leaving relatively uniform seed kernels. The seeds are crushed and mixed with water to create a paste; this paste is then mixed and thoroughly shaken together with a larger quantity of water to produce a solution. The solution is filtered through cloth or mesh and then mixed together with the water to be treated. The coagulant properties of the crushed seeds allow this solution to attract the particulate matter suspended in the dirty water and to move it safely to the bottom allowing the pure water to be removed from the top; the purification process requires at least two hours for full effectiveness. Because these seeds are safe and nontoxic, the water is ready for use right away rather than requiring a secondary course of purification. One kernel typically can treat up to one liter of the dirtiest water, making this an economically sound means of water purification for distant areas. One drawback of the method is that if the water is left undisturbed for too long, secondary contamination can occur, especially if the water is left uncovered. This form of water treatment does not remove all impurities and should typically only be used in cases where the water supply is presumed to be free of chemical or biological contamination. Water purification is considered to be one of the most important functions of the plant because shortages of fresh, pure water are increasingly worrisome in locations all around the world. This new method of purification can produce wholesome drinking water even in isolated or technologically disadvantaged areas of the world.
Moringa seed pod oil can also be used to produce bio-diesel for commercial and industrial applications. While Atrophy continues to dominate the bio-diesel marketplace, a number of companies are exploring the potential of Moringa seed pod oil in this regard. Jatropha oil has a number of drawbacks, including the toxic nature of the product itself; the Jatropha plant produces less oil per acre than the Moringa plant and requires alkaline soils for best results; additionally, the oil and the plant are mildly poisonous and must be handled carefully in order to protect those who come in contact with them. By contrast, the oil produced from the Moringa plant meets the standards required in order to be considered suitable for bio-diesel applications, which include an appropriate cetane index number to ensure solid ignition, a superior iodine number for fuel stability and a solid cold filter plugging point for use in colder climates. The oil pressed from the seed pods meets the applicable ASTM standards for these criteria. Ironically, one factor that has discouraged companies from making use of the oil in bio-diesel production is the overall usefulness of the plant in food production. Many companies prefer to use plant material that is not also useful for food, allowing a larger percentage of the population to benefit from the plant. However, a number of smaller companies are exploring the usefulness of the plant in producing bio-diesel; especially in the Philippines, the hardy nature of the Moringa plant and the abundance of seed pod materials could provide a steady source of income for farmers and an added source of renewable, green fuel for generations of drivers and a large number of commercial and industrial needs. One major advantage of the tree over other bio-diesel fuels is that no part is wasted; the crushed seed kernels and other parts of the plant can be ground up and used as animal fodder in nearly all cases. Bio-diesel applications may offer financial hope for poverty-stricken communities and provide income streams that can help them improve services and conditions to enhance the quality of life in even the most underdeveloped and technologically backwards environments.
Moringa has a number of agricultural uses as well. The leaves, stems and seed pods can be used as fodder or as forage material for cattle. Studies and field tests by the BIOMASA agricultural research project in Nicaragua have shown that the plant can be readily grown as a field crop and can survive for several years in that environment, allowing repeated harvest of the various parts of the plant from only one planting. Researchers Nikolaus and Gabriele Foidl found that supplementing regular cattle feed with leaves and seed pods from the plant can increase the milk production of cattle by as much as 65 percent. Additionally, cattle that consume the plant as part of their daily diets typically experience increased weight gain; studies have shown as much as 32 percent more daily weight gain for cattle that consume the plant over those that do not. The plant is also useful as a fertilizer for other plants; a study published in the International Journal of Agriculture & Biology in 2010 showed improved germination rates and faster germination in beans, cowpeas and groundnuts. Another study conducted by Makkar and Becker in 1996 showed similar results and increased yields for crops sprayed with a solution including the extract of the Moringa plant. While much research remains to be done, the evidence seems to suggest that, when used in conjunction with the regular regimen of fertilizers and growth stimulants, the quantity and quality of almost any crop can be significantly improved by a treatment of this extract. One of the most common uses of the tree, however, is as a free-range forage plant for cattle and other livestock; because the tree retains its leaves even at the height of the dry season, it is especially suited to provide a year-round food supply for free-range cattle. The high protein content in the plant makes it a favored source of food for livestock; anecdotal reports indicate that cattle often seek out the plant in preference to other types of forage plants in the area. The phytochemicals contained in the oil can also be used to control insect infestations. The study Larvicidal and Repellent Potential of Moringa oleifera against Malarial Vector, Anopheles Stephensi Liston outlined the advantages of this extract against mosquitoes, a major threat to health in various areas of the world because of the diseases transmitted by these insects. The extract was shown to be effective at breaking the transmission vector by repelling the insects from the immediate or surrounding area and killing larva that can spread malaria and other diseases.
Over 140 organizations have developed initiatives to introduce these useful and beneficial plants into communities throughout the world to help combat malnutrition, enhance the purity of water and to produce cooking and bio-diesel oil to meet the needs of today and tomorrow. The United Nations World Food Programme has expressed its interest in the food production potential of the tree, as have the U.S. Agency for International Development, German Development Services and the British Overseas Development Agency. Religious organizations that support the use of the Moringa plant to combat malnutrition include the Catholic Development Committee, the Church World Service, the U.S. National Council of Churches and World Vision. The Imagine Rural Development Initiative in Zambia in conjunction with the U.N. has provided seedling trays to numerous small communities within Zambia in order to help establish the plant in this habitat and to provide additional nutrition to those without easy access to clean water and adequate food. The Trees for Life Moringa Project is intended to provide smaller communities throughout the world with these trees in order to combat malnutrition, provide fresh drinking water and offer hope for income streams in the future from bio-diesel and other applications. Many of these initiatives center on areas of rural Africa, since the climate and the conditions there are ideal for the trees and for the benefits they can bring to developing countries and small communities in the region.
The Moringa tree can be used in a wide variety of ways to improve the lives of needy individuals in tropical and semi-arid environments throughout the world. Some experts have expressed concern that the tree may act as an exotic invasive and take over certain areas and ecosystems; however, the evidence suggests that this is unlikely because of the appeal that the leaves, stems and seed pods have for indigenous animals and birds. The seed pods typically remain close to the tree from which they have fallen unless they are deliberately collected and planted; this reduces the likelihood that these trees will spread far from their original planting location. These versatile plants can provide a stable, reliable source of food even in drier climates; additionally, the high protein and nutritional content offers superior nutritional value for areas where other forms of protein and amino acids are difficult to obtain. In remote communities where medical supplies and support are at a premium, the pharmaceutical qualities of the seed pods and leaves can prove invaluable in treating and providing rapid responses to developing health problems, while even technologically advanced societies can benefit from the antioxidant and anti-cancer properties of the enzymes contained in the leaves and stems. Because the leaves retain much of their nutritional value even after being dried and stored for a prolonged period, they can be preserved for significant periods of time without modern refrigeration methods. These qualities make the Moringa tree one of the most important tools in international efforts to promote the health and well-being of less developed nations and small rural communities in India, Africa and South America and throughout the world.