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Moringa oleifera, a fast-growing tree with edible leaves

Lush moringa leaf with lots of leaflets

The most commonly cultivated species, Moringa oleifera, is a smallish tree that grows fast. In temperate climates, it can only survive indoors.

Technical Moringa facts:

NameMoringa oleifera
Type – deciduous foliage tree

Height – 45 feet (15 m)
Exposure – well-lit
Soil – light, very well-drained

Foliage – evergreen
Flowering spring, summer

Moringa oleifera is a perennial tree that was once thought to be native to tropical India. Now, it has been introduced in nearly every region with moist, tropical or subtropical climates. It’s clearly a warm weather plant, reserved to the hotter ends of temperate climate zones: it won’t survive long-lasting bouts of frost.

Planting moringa (soil, exposure)

The tree requires planting in moist areas that never dry out. Frost is what it fears most, so in the United States and Europe, it only grows indoors from fall to summer. Moreover, it doesn’t like extreme day-night temperature swings. Only bring it outdoors during the hottest periods of the year.

Moringa in a pot or garden box:

Potted moringa is the only option in colder climatesYou’ll need a very large container (about 10 cubic feet or 1 cubic meter) for its deep-reaching roots to grow. Because of its size, this tree will is only suitable for heated greenhouses or similar set-ups, like large heated lean-ins for instance). Set up sturdy wheels underneath your container to roll it around easily.

  • The garden box must not only be large, it also needs holes at the bottom for excess water to drain away. Moringa likes well drained soil and abhors stagnating water.
  • Use soil mix since it both retains moisture and lets excess water drain out.
  • It will need space to develop well.
  • Proper light is critical.

Growing and caring for moringa (watering, pruning)

Pollinator wasp approaching moringa flowers on a blooming branchYour Moringa oleifera seedlings have a powerfully strong taproot that easily breaks and tears. As a result, it’s important to keep the plant in a large enough container so that the taproot doesn’t run around in circles along the bottom. If ever it gets rootbound, you’ll have a lot of trouble repotting it… call in the Incredible Hulk! In its natural environment, Moringa trees easily reach 20 feet (5 meters) in less than 6 months. When it’s that tall, harvesting its leaves and fruit pods is difficult.

Pruning Moringa:

Moringa can bear pruning very well. In a pot, it’s even a requirement: otherwise it’ll grow spindly and tall.

  • The goal is to “cover” the tree at a reasonable height.
  • After harvesting its leaves, cut the taller stems back down to the height that’s best for you.
  • You can even cut the top off! From the cut crown, many new stems will branch out to the side, making your tree look like a lush shrub.

Propagating Moringa oleifera

Moringa oleifera propagates either through seeds or through branch cuttings. Seeds and young seedlings need a constantly warm temperature to grow, at least 60°F (15°C), with no difference between night and day if possible.

Moringa cuttings:

Once the tree has finished bearing fruit, it helps to cut branches back to trigger new growth. Use these cut trimmings to start new trees off:

  • Collect branches that are at least an inch across (2.5 cm) and nearly 6 feet long (1.8 meters).
  • Use, again, a large container: 3 feet by 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep (1 x 1 x 1 m).
  • Sink the end of the cutting into the container, and fill it with a blend of soil, sand, and composted manure. Press the soil well around the base of the stem. Ridge the soil around the stem, bringing it up like a dome or cone. Like a volcano, the slope should end far from the center of the container.
  • Water abundantly, but without drenching the cutting in water. It’s best for water to not even touch the new tree’s stem at all.

Moringa roots very easily from branches, just like plumeria and poplar trees. However, shelter such cuttings from strong winds because the root system won’t go as deep as with seed-sown trees.

Sowing moringa seeds

Seeds collected from your M. oleifera don’t require any time for dormancy. You can plant them as soon as they ripen. However, it’s often wiser to wait for the middle of spring to sow them, since the milder climate matches the plant’s needs in most temperate areas. Plant the seeds directly in a large container, big enough to suit the tree in the short-to-medium run. Indeed, seedlings are very fragile and often won’t survive transplanting if before 3-4 months.

Sprouting moringa seedSowing will only work in its native climate or in heated, sheltered places.

  • Prepare light soil, with sand or special sowing mix if you’re starting the plant off in a nursery pot.
  • Dig holes a foot wide and across, and as deep, too (30 cm x 30 cm x 30 cm). Fill the soil with loose soil. Compost and manure will both help the plant to grow better, but Moringa trees can also grow well in very poor soil.
  • Plant three to five seeds in each hole (or nursery pot), about 2 inches apart (5 cm). Ideal depth is at most three time as deep as the seed is tall. In this case, not more than 2 inches (5 cm).
  • Keep the soil moist enough for it to never dry out, but also make sure the soil doesn’t stay soggy or your seeds will rot away immediately.
  • When trees have sprouted to 4-6 inches (10-15 cm), keep the most vigorous of the tree and remove the other two. Nematodes can kill young saplings, so make sure you take steps to control against them.

Moringa oleifera seed pods, harvested and in a plateInfo : each seed pod grows into a distinctive, elongated shape. Often long, pointy and shaped like a triangle prism less than an inch wide (1-2 cm), they easily reach a foot or two in length (30-50 cm). Some cultivated varieties even grow pods that are 4 feet long (120 cm)! Inside, shiny, oily seeds ripen, each one about half an inch across (1 cm). While still green, the seed pods are fleshy and green, but they turn fibrous and gray when ripe. They stay on the tree until seeds are mature.

Diseases and pests:

The most important risk is related to drought and to day/night temperature changes (thermal shock).

Good to know about Moringa

M. oleifera , is a smallish deciduous tree that grows fast.

  • Often reaching a height of 25 to 30 feet (8 to 10 m), it fans out into a narrow, umbrella-like crown.
  • Branches droop back downwards when they grow larger, and the bark is smooth, light colored with grayish-green streaks.
  • It tends to send deep roots off to long distances.

Moringa leaves:

The leaves are 6 to 12 inches long, grouping many leaflets. It’s very light and sways with the slightest breeze, playfully frolicking with the sun’s rays at they flutter.

Fragrant flowers, creamy white, appear in large panicles. Each one has 5 lopsided petals that are slightly larger than the surrounding sepals.

Apart from its medicinal properties, the M. oleifera species is also grown for many other purposes: food for us humans, fodder for cattle and goats, and extracts are used in cosmetics. Increasing use both local and international will most certainly lead to more projects where this tree is planted and cultivated. New varieties will be shared, though it will only ever become popular in places where it doesn’t freeze.

Moringa tree losing its leaves but with lots of dangling seed podsInfo – Interestingly, the date at which the tree loses its leaves before growing a new set is different depending on where it’s grown. In India, leaves drop around December-January and then grow back in February-March. In some environments (tropical ones), wherever moisture and irrigation abound, the tree bears fruits and flowers all year round.

Smart tip about Moringa oleifera

Though the plant loves being watered, it should have soil that drains very, very well. In waterlogged areas, it quickly turns yellow and dies.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
Pixabay: Iskandar Ab. Rashid, Spencer Wing, Bishnu Sarangi, Yaayaa Diallo
CC BY 2.0: Rusty Clark
CC BY-SA 2.0: Books for Life
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