The Global Garden: A drought-tolerant tree called moringa
Moringa seems too good to be true: a fast-growing, drought-tolerant tree whose leaves, flowers, pods and seeds are not only edible but also highly nutritious. Called malongay by some gardeners, the plant (botanical name Moringa oleifera) has more potassium than bananas, more protein than sardines, more beta carotene than carrots. Seed cake, the residue after oil is extracted, can be used for water purification. Some also believe that moringa may help to control hypertension, keep glucose levels in check, fight bacteria and parasites and reduce inflammation. The seeds can have a Viagra-like effect, according to some. More important to gardeners (well, most gardeners), moringa is a nitrogen-fixer in the soil.
Pete Pableo, left, a member of the Salad Bowl Community Garden in Granada Hills, introduced me to the plant last summer. Pableo is from the Philippines, where the leaf is a staple, and he keeps his crop of moringa cut low to the ground, harvesting the fingernail-sized leaves regularly.
“You use it with chicken or soup,” he said. “Just the leaf. You have to use a lot, because the leaves are so small.”
In terms of taste, think spinach with a pleasing nuttiness, subtle yet distinctive, especially when added raw to a salad. In India, where the plant originated in the Himalayan foothills, the trees also are grown for their long seed pods, the “drumsticks” that give it the common name drumstick tree. You can eat the young pods like asparagus or green beans, pictured at top, or you can slice them for stew or curry.
The juicy seeds in larger pods can be used like peas. To sample a seed pod, check out the produce section of India Sweets and Spices in Los Feliz or other Indian grocery stores.
Rodney Perdew, right, founder of the online company Moringa Farms, became enamored of the plant after reading a story in the L.A. Times in 2000. “I got moringa fever,” said Perdew, who started importing the dried leaf powder and seeds of the plant. (He also sells seedlings to Armstrong Garden Centers.) Eight years ago, he planted two seedlings -- African and Indian varieties -- outside his apartment building in Van Nuys. Now, the trees are 25 feet high and festooned with seed pods, thick with feathery elliptical leaves. One tree shows a ragged tear where a midnight thief hurriedly tore off a branch.
Southern California isn’t the ideal climate for moringa, he said. The heat is fine -- moringa can handle temperatures up to about 115 -- but frost can severely damage a tree. He planted his seedlings with a southern exposure and keeps them warm in winter.
In the tropics, moringa is easily propagated from cuttings, but here, seeds are more reliable. Look for seeds with the three wing-like flaps still intact. Wait till spring or early summer, soak them overnight and plant them in a perlite-peat moss mixture, keeping them dark and warm. A 10-inch seedling can become a 4-foot sapling in a few months, covered with edible leaves. The pods ripen in fall, just in time for Thanksgiving -- a drumstick that works as a side dish.
-- Jeff Spurrier
The Global Garden is our new weekly series profiling plants from around the world: the eccentric, the edible and, for our multicultural city, the endearing reminders of home. Look for a new installment every Tuesday; for an easy way to follow all our garden coverage, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.
Photos: Ann Summa