By JOYCE COMINGORE
Special to The Breeze
Oh, the wonderful, edible moringa tree. Every part is edible, causing it to become known as the "miracle tree" - a tree that meets all your nutritional needs, takes care of you medicinally and purifies your water. This is a big need met in Third World countries. Of course, you find it at ECHO on Durrance Road in North Fort Myers where it has almost become the facility's signature plant. It is such a treat to visit there. I went with my granddaughter's school class as a chaperone a while back, and marveled at everything that turned on these growing minds. We bought seeds, which we planted and got two seedlings to grow. I did buy another kind of tree - the neem tree, also a magic or miracle tree, a regular pharmaceutical tree for my backyard. Jean wrote an article about this tree in her Nov. 27 article when our club visited the Neem Tree Farm. I used the tiny twigs for toothpicks to keep my teeth healthy. These two trees are wonderous.
The moringa tree, Moringa oleifera, has the ability to survive in arid parts of the world, but freezes outside zones 9 and 10, and looses its leaves in the winter below 70 degrees. Because it grows so fast, I read where it can be used as an annual herb in the colder areas.
Indigenous to the sub-Himalayan regions of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is found in Malaysia, Latin America, Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. Commonly known as the "horseradish tree" because of its pungent root, it is a fast growing tree that reaches nearly 25 feet tall, with corky bark and feathery, ferny leaflets. After about 8 months or more, the tree flowers and continues year round. The flowers are white, fragrant and grow in clusters. The tangy flowers are edible and some indulgers have compared their taste to radishes.
There are 12 species of moringa, and the most common is moringa oleifera. They are highly valued in the ancient worlds of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians for their valuable edible oils extracted from the seeds and used for their lotions and perfumes. They shipped it to Europe in the 19th century for perfumes and machinery lubrication. It never turns rancid.
The most valued and used parts are the immature pods. Mature pods are nutritious because they contain all the essential amino acids plus many vitamins and other nutrients. They can be eaten raw or cooked like peas or beans. Mature pods can be fried, are delicious and taste like peanuts or asparagus. An acceptable mock asparagus soup can be made.
Leaves are where the biggest medicinal benefits lie. A lady tells about the fact that she had been adding them to her salads and loves it, but when she tried to make a salad of just the leaves, ala spinach, that first tree had bitter leaves. She pulled it up and the newer tree's leaves were better tasting. Leaves can be used raw or cooked like spinach, sprinkled in salads, soups and curries, put with seasonings and in pickles.
In needy countries, the leaves are dried, pounded to a powdery form and spread on the regular foods of the children and adults.
Nursing mother's milk production has improved and their babies are healthier. Even the animals fed these leaves are healthier animals. They are rich in Vitamin A, contain four times the amount found in carrots and 13 times the amount found in spinach. Its vitamin C content is seven times greater than oranges, four times the chlorophyll of wheat grass and four times the amount of calcium in milk.
Besides the amino acids, moringa is rich in sources of zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium, folic acid, vitamin D, vitamin K and vitamin E. Wow, could I ever get rid of a lot of pills I take.
The seeds are three-sided with papery fringes. Seeds sprout in one to two weeks in all types of soil, making them Third World friendly. The seeds can be used from the time they form, to when they finish their ripening. Pop the peas from the pod like regular peas, twist the pods and slit the pod. Place the winged peas and flesh in a strainer to wash well, to remove the sticky, bitter film that coats them, or blanch them and pour off the water, rinse and boil again in fresh water. The remarkable thing about the seeds is that they clarify poor water of any visible turbidity, a big help in purifying drinking water for these Third World countries.
They respond well to mulch, fertilizer and water, and their fallen leaves even make nutritious fertilizer. They have been used as living fences because they easily root within two weeks.
As to its namesake, horseradish tree, that thick root may be used to grate for tangy spicy horseradish, but it is discouraged for any heavy usage. The root contains alkaloids, especially moriginine, and a bacteriocide, spirochin, both of which can be fatal if taken in excess. Moderation is advised. But the good news is, there is a belief, India's ancient tradition of ayurveda, says the leaves of the moringa tree prevent 300 diseases, that it has great use medicinally, both, preventatively and as treatments.
This "miracle" tree offers hope - nutritionally, medicinally and economically - to devastated Third World countries. I'm not a Third World country, but I think I need this miracle in my backyard. It is not a beautiful, shady specimen tree, but its usefulness outweighs any other consideration. I could really thank this tree.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener; national director of the American Hibiscus Society and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.