Although few Westerners have ever heard of it, moringa is potentially one of the planet’s most valuable plants, at least in humanitarian terms. Perhaps the fastest growing useful tree, it commonly tops 3 m—or even 5 m—within a year of the seed being placed in the ground.1 Some people actually grow it as an annual.
Strangely, this tree is raised for food rather than forestry. A sort of supermarket on a trunk, it yields at least four different edibles: pods, leaves, seeds, and roots. And beyond edibles, it provides products that make village life more self-sufficient: lubricating oil, lamp oil, wood, paper, liquid fuel, skin treatments, and the means to help purify water, to name but a few. The living tree, itself, also provides such things as shade, landscaping, and shelter from the elements.
Arguably, this multi-tasking species is the most exciting tropical resource still awaiting widespread application. And it is a supreme poor-person’s plant with promise for benefiting much of rural Africa. Not without reasons do aficionados refer to it as “mother’s best friend.”
Foreigners who have read about the seemingly wondrous moringa are usually disappointed when they finally get to see one. Except under the best of conditions, it is far from handsome. Indeed, it typically is small, scrawny, wispy, and wholly unimpressive to the eye. Partly that is because people forever pick it for food, but even the most pampered specimens will never be confused with the forest giants of popular imagination. All in all, this is a down-to-earth, unpretentious, and unsophisticated member of the tree world.
But this “working-class” species works, and it works well. Some varieties flower profusely and are used chiefly to produce young pods; others flower sparsely and principally yield leaves. In both cases production can be outstanding. A single tree grown under good conditions can, for instance, bear more than 1,000 pods a season and can supply leaves year round if the climate is conducive.
Of all moringa’s edible parts, the green young pods are most sought-after. These legume-like fruits are typically 30-60 cm in length and are
Roy Danforth wrote from Congo: “The trees grow much more rapidly than papaya, with one 3-month old tree reaching 8 feet. I never knew there could be such a tree.”