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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
body to acquire from plant-based diets. Moreover, moringa leaves contain vitamins A and C, more calcium than most other greens, and so much iron doctors prescribe them for anemic patients.3 And regular consumption of the leaves is reported to increase milk production among lactating women.
Because of discoveries like these a number of development organizations around the world are actively promoting moringa leaves and dried leaf powder as nutritional supplements. The leaves are remarkably easy to handle. Unlike many other leaf crops there is no fibrous leaf stalk (petiole) to be removed. The leaflets are thus 100-percent edible. And with more than three times the dry matter of spinach, they dry quickly and easily.
The thick, soft roots are probably moringa’s third most important food resource. They are a popular condiment, with the flavor of horseradish, for which they are employed as a substitute. Other parts of this plant provide useful food items too. The shoot tips, flowers, and even whole seedlings make boiled greens that are similarly high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Finally, the pods that are too old and tough to be eaten like green beans are employed as a snack—slit open and the sweet, frothy, white pulp sucked out.
Perhaps the most innovative and provocative use of this already innovative and provocative species is to treat water and wastewater. The protein found in moringa seeds can be used to settle silt and other contaminants. Research in Africa has disclosed that it can replace alum, a normally imported and expensive material. The water still needs a final filtration but the seeds make the process easier and more complete, while extending the useful life of water filters. This could be of major significance where water-borne diseases are prevalent and where central water treatment systems are creaky or nonexistent.
The genus Moringa is a small one whose center of biodiversity is the Horn of Africa.4 The best-known species, Moringa oleifera, must have sprung from those East African “proto-roots” although it apparently completed its evolution across the Indian Ocean, in the foothills of the Himalayas. So although not African itself it derives directly from African stock. The following text relies mostly on this species (for the reason that it
Researchers summarizing moringa put it this way: “…among the leafy vegetables, one stands out as particularly good. It is the horseradish tree, Moringa oleifera. The leaves of the tree are outstanding as a source of vitamin A and, when raw, vitamin C. They are a good source of B vitamins and among the best plant sources of minerals. The calcium content is very high for a plant. Phosphorus is low, as it should be. The content of iron is very good. They are an excellent source of fat and carbohydrates. Thus, these leaves are one of the best plant foods that can be found.” Martin, F.W. R.M. Ruberte, and L. Meitzner. 1998. Edible Leaves of the Tropics, 3rd ed.; available via ECHONet.org.
There are 13 species in the genus. Nine occur in eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Somalia (8 occur nowhere else). The densest concentration is Kenya’s northeast corner, where 4 species are found. Two more occur in Madagascar and 1 is endemic to Namibia and southern Angola. Only 1 of the 13 species, Moringa oleifera itself, seemingly arose full-blown outside Africa. Information from Mark Olson.