Yes, I know the title sounds a little corny but wait and see! I am not a barker trying to sell the "true" stone of life or arguing about which tree is THE tree but the one we are about to meet has indeed some special treats. And if you happen to type miracletree.org on your browser what do you think you are to set upon ?
Those among the readers who are vegetarians or who have some interest in survival food in Africa may already know today's tree, but let us take a little time to introduce this wonder tree to other folks...The botanical family it belongs to is the Moringaceae which only contains a single genera, the Moringa one. This genera is itself divided into twelve species naturally occuring in Madagascar, Africa, Arabia and three of them in India. And from India comes Moringa oleifera (former synonyms are Guilandina moringa and Moringa pterygosperma). The generic name comes from the Tamil (Indian tongue of Southern India and Ceylon) word 'morungai' which translates as 'drumstick' from the fruit's shape. The species name alludes to the oil content of the seeds. Vernacular names are horseradish tree, drumstick tree, mourongue, bréde médaille, ananambo, ben-oil tree, pois quénique, maloko, etc. Actually, as this tree has been of prime value for many different people in places of the world where local dialects are many such as India and Pakistan, not to mention Africa, it has several hundreds of names!
The tree can be described as a small tree, 3 to 10m (9 to 30 feet) high with rough, white bark while young parts are greenish white, sometimes tomentose. The tripinnate leaves are very handsome and give an aerial look to branches. The small numerous scented white flowers come in panicles 10 to 30cm (up to a foot) long. Those flowers turn into hanging fruits which are called 'capsules', hence different from the pods produced by plants of the Leguminosae family (peas, beans and relatives). They are 20 to 50cm (about a foot) long, have a triangular shape, inflated at seeds level, green when young and turning pale brown when aging, opening by three valves. The seeds held inside are three-cornered, roundish and bear three wings.
As we mentioned previously, this species in native to Asia but has spread to most tropical areas nowadays. But what miracles does it accomplish? Well, this tree can save life which is quite a miracle in itself, right? It does save people's lives because of the high nutrients it contains throughout its leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. And as it can grow in places where other species would suffer, it is a choice plant for harsh conditions found in parts of all continents. The leaves themselves sound just incredible when you know that they contain twice as much proteins than yogurt, three times more potassium than bananas, seven times more C vitamin than oranges, four times more A vitamin than carrots, four times more calcium than milk, fifteen more times iron than spinaches plus the amino-acids essential to man. Those leaves can be absorbed as greens, cooked in various ways such as veggies, soups, sauces or eaten as salad. In parts of Africa dried powdered leaves are given to newborns and young mothers to prevent denutrition. On Reunion Island the flowers are picked and turned into fritters which are said to mimic the taste of wasp larvaes, a much enjoyed local delicacy hence rare and expensive...The fruits, cooked like green beans when they are still young. When the seeds are mature they can be cold pressed for oil, the famous 'Ben oil' named such because of its high content of behenic acid. The yellow odorless product is good for skin and haircare, for cooking or lubricating. What else about this miracle oil ? Well, it is no less than anti-oxydant, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, anti-microbial, disinfectant, hepatoprotective, emollient, preservative, exfoliant, and also a choice produce for perfumes because of its abilities for 'enfleurage'. Another invaluable use in countries where water is not safe comes form the capacity of crushed seeds to purify water ; turbid water will clear up because of the coagulants contained in the seeds. Particles and bacterias sink at the bottom of containers and allow to get rid of up to 90% of bacterias, a much cheaper and safer way to treat water than the usual aluminum sulphate. Depending on the turbidity of water (from low to extreme), doses will range from one seed for four liters of water to two seeds for one liter.
What about the roots? Well but those are miracle roots, of course! They are edible (with a horseradish taste, hence one of its vernacular names) though root bark is toxic, they can also be used as fodder for animals, as medicines, fertilizers, pesticides and even cleaning agents.
Moringa will grow better in direct sunlight and loose soils, the long taproot produced allows it to withstand droughts, minimum annual rainfall is 250mm and maximum 3000, waterlogged soils are the worse. It can be propagated by seeds which have a rather long shelf life or by cuttings including large ones (one meter long). Trees produced by seedlings take two years before flowering and fruiting while the ones from cuttings can start flowering after only six to twelves months. In good conditions harvest of leaves can be done every fifty days so clever planting can bring food all year round even in places where watering is a problem.
So, if you happen to live in zones 9 or 10 you should give the tree a try, indoor growing is also possible but may give disappointing results if you want to feed on it!