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Grow Miraculous Moringa in the Desert

Cultivate this nutritious tree in your own backyard.

By John Roark | Photography by Jackie Lyle

Also known as the tree of life and drumstick tree, the moringa (Moringa oleifera) boasts a long list of purported benefits that have garnered attention from nutritionists all over the world. Ounce for ounce, the leaves of this drought-tolerant tree have seven times more vitamin C than oranges, four times the calcium of milk, triple the potassium of bananas and quadruple the vitamin A found in carrots. The plant’s proponents believe it to be effective in treating headaches, high blood pressure, arthritis, gastric ulcers and more, and it has been shown to boost breast milk production in lactating mothers. Powder from the plant’s seeds can be used to purify water.

For a tree with such health benefit claims, it has a curiously low profile in this country. “Moringa is well known all over the world and is used in subsistence farming in more than 20 countries, where it is the sole nutrient for some communities,” says Suzanne Vilardi, a wholesale propagator who specializes in heirloom edible crops suitable for Maricopa County’s harsh climate. “It’s just here in the U.S. where it’s still relatively unknown.”

Native to India, moringa thrives in hot, arid regions, making it a natural choice for Arizona gardeners. The only real hazard the tree faces is freezing temperatures, but even when damaged by frost, it can be cut down to ground level and will bounce back once warm weather returns, growing as much as 18 feet high in a six-month period. “It’s a great plant for beginners because it takes a lot of abuse,” says Vilardi. “You can pretty much neglect a moringa tree and it will be just fine.”

Vilardi describes the mature moringa tree as slender and graceful, with delicate leaves. “I wouldn’t recommend it as an ornamental addition to a landscape,” she says. “There is a dwarf variety that grows to about 6 feet high that I have seen planted as a hedge, but as it goes dormant and loses its leaves in the winter, the visual appeal is diminished,” she says.

Valley chef Aaron Chamberlin discovered the plant at the Ahwatukee Farmers Market six years ago. He raves, “I’m always looking for food-related, plant-based medicines that I can incorporate into my home garden,” he says. “Moringa is

Flowers of the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) are edible and can be sauteed and added to omelets, pasta dishes, soups and more.

so easy to grow, it’s a no-brainer. I initially planted four trees. They came up so quickly I had more produce than I knew what to do with. After the first six months, I dried eight full sheet pans of the leaves on my back patio.”

While the leaves are the most commonly consumed part of the plant—both fresh from the tree and dried and ground into powder—the moringa’s pods are also a popular ingredient in Indian and Asian cuisines.

Scottsdale resident Jacq Davis learned about moringa when she and her husband were researching permaculture gardening, the practice of developing sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems. “We wanted an edible plant that is fast-growing and that can provide a shade canopy. Moringa fit the bill,” she says. After watching the seedlings grow literally before their eyes, the couple juiced the fresh leaves and discovered ingestion can have a cleansing effect. “Based on our experience, we would recommend not consuming a large amount right from the start,” she says. “The key is to use moringa sparingly until you know how your body will react.”

Davis describes the moringa’s flavor as spicy, similar to mustard or horseradish. While her favorite method of preparation is adding the young seed pods, which resemble string beans, to curry dishes, she also sprinkles the leaves into soups and garnishes salads and stir-fries with a dusting of the powder. Additionally, she notes that moringa flowers, profusions of which generally bloom here in July and November, are also consumable. “The blossoms are very fragrant but still carry the plant’s spiciness,” she notes. “We like to sauté them with onions and add them to omelets, frittatas and scrambled eggs.”

MORINGA FACTS

TYPE: Tree

ELEVATION: Middle

SIZE: 30’H by 15’W

BLOOMS: White flowers in summer and fall

SOIL: Well-drained, porous

ATTRACTS: Bees, hummingbirds, butterflies

LIGHT: Full sun

WATER NEEDS: Low

MAINTENANCE: Protect from frost; remove seed pods at maturity

After experimenting in his own kitchen, Chamberlin prefers to pulverize the dried leaves into a powder for use as a dietary supplement. “In the beginning, I tried all kinds of things,” he recalls. “I experimented with different dishes, but I found that the flavor can be overpowering. I add an ounce to my morning smoothie, along with blueberries, ginger, turmeric, dates and hempseeds. I also make tea by boiling the fresh leaves in water for a few minutes.”

Given its rapid growth rate, moringa should be placed in an open area where it won’t interfere with other greenery or structures. If grown in a pot, expect a limited lifespan, Vilardi says. “This plant has a taproot, almost like a carrot,” she says. “If contained, the root will become damaged by winding around the bottom of the pot, limiting the growth and lifespan of the plant. There’s no reason why you couldn’t grow a small tree in a container and enjoy its benefits, but know that it will only last for a single season. You can always start a new one in the spring.”

Moringa byproducts, including oil, extract, powder, tea bags and capsules are available online and through health-food specialty grocery stores. Although very few side effects have been reported, researching benefits and cautions is important, and consulting a physician is recommended before adding any supplement to your diet.

Vilardi is an avid proponent of growing and harvesting moringa in lieu of purchasing commercially available products. “The benefits you get from what you grow yourself will always be greater than something you buy in a plastic container at a grocery store.”

The moringa tree’s branches are slender and willowy. They will lose their leaves during Arizona’s winter months.

GROWING 

TIPS

By Bruce Solomon, Arcadia Color Garden

  • For best results, grow moringa from seed or seedling. Stem cuttings tend to develop a shallow root system, resulting in a more fragile tree structure.
  • Plant in early spring once danger of frost has passed.
  • Seeds should be placed in soil about 1 inch deep and kept moist while germinating. An ideal location receives at least four hours of direct sun daily. Moringa will also thrive in full sun.
  • Moringa leaves will wilt when they need water. Provide a good soaking when soil surface looks dry but is slightly damp at a depth of 1 inch. Irrigate potted plants until water comes out of the container’s drainage hole.
  • Keep trees at a height at which leaves and seed pods can be easily accessed. When pruning, cut a half inch above a leaf node to encourage branching.

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