Leaf of the Day: The Unassuming but Miraculous Horseradish Tree

Time after time I find something at the Gardens which amazes me. “Amaze” is my most overworked word but in every instance it really is justified. On Thursday I was wandering along the quite paths on the westen side of the gardens, not looking for anything in particular, and happened upon this modest little tree tucked away in a side border. I nearly didn’t bother with it. I thought “Oh this is quite pretty”, and idly wondered why a tree would be called a “horseradish” tree when the root of the brassica Armoracia rusticana, is the normal source. But this tree must take the biscuit for being the most ‘amazing’ I have come across yet, not for beauty or size or anything outward but for its astonishing and well documented usefulness.
Just 5 minutes on the Internet revealed a tree that has been hailed by biochemists as the most nutrient-rich plant ever discovered and by others as simply the “Miracle Tree”
This is the Moringa oleifera, the Horseradish Tree, known by many other names, including the Drumstick Tree, the Ben Oil tree, and Mother’s Best Friend.

This heady acclaim is because almost every part of this plant can be used to our benefit in some way or another. Just nutritionally it takes some beating. Bio chemists have discovered that weight for weight powdered Moringa leaves have seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the calcium of milk, three times the potassium of bananas, four times the vitamin A of carrots and two times the protein of milk. The edible pods are also high in nutritional value and are cooked like green beans when young. The flowers, high in calcium and potassium are eaten cooked and apparently taste something like mushrooms.
Another extremely useful property of this plant is as a water purifier. The powdered seeds have been shown to be extremely effective in removing bacteria and it is used as a purifier for river water and desalination agent.
These two particular properties , nutrition and water purification, have led to initiatives to introduce this pretty little tree to areas of deprivation and malnutrition. It is easy to grow in tropical and desert areas, thrives in poor soil and recent strains are more frost hardy and will grow where oranges can survive
It is a very important tree.

Great photo from the University of British Columbia site here, courtesy of Melanie Brown of the APPEF PROJECT, TOGO.
and here is one of the comments in response to the photo.

I read this post with great interest. I am Sri Lankan and just about all gardens there have a spindly “murunga” or “drumstick” tree. We never ate the roots but the pods and leaves were eaten regularly. As kids we loved “drumstick curry” because of the work involved scraping the flesh off the hard peel! The leaves have a distinct taste which I would not describe as an “off taste”. To cook the leaves, the leaves were first stripped of the main stem and then cooked by lightly sauteing it with a small amount of onion. In the coastal areas, crabs were always cooked in a curry with Murunga leaves. In the hills, the leaves were blended into a pan fried bread (called roti’s) by the Indian tamils (mostly very poor workers’ in the tea estates). I am very glad to now know that these leaves are very nourishing. Thank you.

Posted by: June at May 8, 2008 8:15 AM

Medicinally, it is used for the treatment of skin infections, lowering blood pressure, reducing swelling, healing gastric ulcers, lowering blood sugar and a mild tranquilizer. Drinking the water from the boiled beans is also said to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis…I presume because of its anti-inflammatory properties. This alone would be a relief to many (she says with some feeling!)

What else?… well the Moringa seeds yield a fine high quality edible oil, ben oil, which when refined is clear, odorless, and resists rancidity. It is used for oiling watches, as a perfume base and of course for cooking and, like Jatropha has been identified as a possible bio fuel source.
The bark and sap are used to make a blue calico dye which is used in Jamaica and India.
It is another “living fence post” tree and when everything has been eaten, squeezed, pressed and extracted, the fibres can be used for matting, paper and cordage and the seed cake for animal fodder and fertilizer.

This image of Moringa pods from Moringanews here.

Some history ….
The Moringa is a native of India, where it grows wild. It was well known and valued by the ancient civilizations of Rome Greece and Egypt, and there is apparently a written record of it from 2000 BC.
The name Moringa is from the Tamil and oliefera, means ” oil-bearing.”
It is the only genus in the plant family Moringaceae in which there are 13 species. There is a website here with information on the family.
The tree itself is a pretty delicate thing which can achieve above 10 meters but can be cut back to about 1 meter allowing the leaves and pods on the new growth to be within arms length.

Lovely old print from “Flora de Filipinas” at Wiki

Culinary uses abound and you will find recipes on the Internet. I am going to try some and will report back. The leaf I brought home to draw is past its best.
The leaves are used fresh in salad like coriander, or they can be added to soups. The pods known as “drumsticks”, hence one of the names of the tree, are cooked and eaten when young like green beans or when older the pulp is extracted and added to stews or curries. In India the pods are fried and also preserved in cans. It is a good ingredient for curries mixed with coconut, poppy seeds and mustard. The seeds can be roasted or removed from the pods and used like peas. The only warning note seems to be about eating the root which, although it tastes like horseradish must be carefully peeled as the root bark is toxic.

Here is a quick and easy way of getting some moringa nutrition into your diet from Hendry Creek Hideaway, see link below.

Add dried, crushed Moringa leaves to oil with other fresh herbs. Dip hot bread.

For some more good info and great photos go to Hendrycreekhideaway of Fort Myers here

There is much more information on the Internet than I have time to sift through for this post but Moringa does have its own website, Moringa News.org here
It is multi-lingual site with Moringa information and connects people who are interested in all aspects of this amazing little tree.

I think we should all try to grow one. I am sure there is room on the balcony for just one and I know here in Florida they definitely grow well. I think I should start a campaign.

Two odd additional things, the tree is said to host ghosts at night and the seeds are very like those of the Midnight Horror tree.. strange..


Leaves and Flowers of the Horseradish Tree

Leaf of the Day: The Midnight Horror Tree

In the darkest deepest wilds of Leu, there is a tree that you would never normally see. You have to go “off path” to get to it and once you arrive at the tree trunk there is nothing to see, except the trunk, which is not out of the ordinary at all. You can’t see the top easily because, if yesterday’s gumbo limbo was tall this is much taller, its crown waving above the nearby palms. I would not have noticed it, except for a fallen pinky white flower that was lying on the floor of the forest. From a distance it looked like some kind of mushroom and I was interested because since the rains started there have been many exciting mushrooms and fungi springing up. Braving extensive spider’s webs and the chance of disturbing an innocently snoozing snake ( what I do for this blog!) I found, not only was it a rather beautiful flower, but it also belonged to the wonderfully named Midnight Horror Tree. The ticket was hard to find too, buried in leaves and soil, not many people come this way .

So this is the Midnight Horror Tree, Broken Bones Plant, Tree of Damocles, Oroxylum indicum.
Why does it have this terrible name? I was hoping for a nasty poison or wailing spirits of the dead or something equally ghoulish. There is nothing quite so bad. However this tall tree develops spectacular, meter-long curved pods which are held high up above the leaves.

They look like curved scimitars and on a dark windy night, rattle and sway, ready to fall and pierce the unsuspecting traveller or spear the misguided sleeper who has chosen this particular tree for shelter. They are quite alarming and hence the Sword of Damocles name.

The analogy with the Damocles story is interesting as, at first, Damocles was unaware of the sword hanging over him, busy as he was, enjoying the pleasures of a great man. Only when he looked up did he see the danger and decide a simpler life was better. Like the sword these pods, carried high up in the tree, would not at first be noticeable to a passer by.
Having this thought in my head, I would not be inclined to sleep under these precarious pods, hanging by their single horsehair, the unease would be palpable.

This photo, others and more info from Joe Pan’s Malay blog here

Contributing to the image of “horror” might be the strange white winged seeds which are contained in the pods, they are like little white butterflies which could glow a ghostly white in the moonlight, looking like disembodied eyes perhaps, and apparently the huge leaf stems fall at the end of the season to form piles of ” broken bones” at the base of the tree. The big flowers which are eaten in Thailand, only bloom at night, and are pollinated by bats, an additional macabre touch I suppose.

However this bad name is hardly justified, as in reality this good tree is a very useful medicinal plant. Amongst other things, the seed contains oils and flavonoids “One of the main flavonoids, chrysin, has been the subject of much study; among its potential applications is to alleviate anxiety” Anxiety no doubt caused by being in close proximity to the tree.
And a curious footnote, rice farmers use the pods and leaf stalks to dispatch paddy field crabs which they then presumably eat.

It is hard to see much of the tree at Leu as it is right in the middle of a densely wooded part of the garden, but eventually I noticed a flower spike right at the very top. You can see it sticking out at the left below.

This photo I took with small digital zoom is not much more than a silhouette, but you can see the remains of the flowers and on the right at the bottom there are the beginnings of a pod. Now these pods will be something else! I shall keep coming back to this tree, sword of Damocles or not I will be there when they fall..

Jatropha Update. Yesterday I heard a programme all about Jatropha biofuel growing in India .. (BBC Radio Listen Again here) It was very interesting if a little inconclusive but the wonderful thing about Jatropha is that it will grow in waste lands. Sadly they are short of man power to harvest the crops as all the bright young people have left the countryside to work in the computer industry.

Midnight Horror Flower.

Leaf of the Day: The Gout Plant, Biofuel and more.

I like everything about this plant. It’s quirky and striking and it’s the one with the ballistic pods which exploded in the studio a couple of days ago. One pod is still left so I have drawn that (quickly) and the remains of the shattered pod and a seed.
It has some wonderful names, Gout stick, Buddha belly, Guatemala rhubarb, Goutystalk nettlespurge, and Tartogo, as well as this splendid Latin name Jatropha podagrica. If this were my name I would, without a doubt, be a famous and sought after artist already. I may adopt it.
The Jatrophas, and there are qute a few of them, are from the Euphorbia family and native to central America. The name “Jatrophais from the Greek iatrós meaning ‘doctor’, and trophé meaning ‘food’, referring to its nutritious qualities (although this one is poisonous!) and podagrica means ‘swollen foot’ ( gouty )

When you see this odd little plant you realise why it has the name Buddha belly, from its bulbous thickened lower stem which gives it a belly (to rub for good luck of course). Another Buddha plant for this month.
This photo from Toptropicals site here shows very well its bottle shaped stem and also the two hopefully waving raised arms that are another characteristic, (this one seems to be wearing small sunglasses too). Toptropicals is an very good site and I have referred to it quite often now. It has excellent information about plants and good photos too.

My photo below from Leu shows its nicely shaped leaves and brilliantly coloured flowers…and again, the two waving arms.

Its relative Jatropha curcas, the Physic nut, or Barbados nut has recently been discovered to produce excellent oil which could be a replacement for diesel. The seeds contain 30% oil that can be processed to produce this high-quality biodiesel fuel, usable in a standard diesel engine. Last year an article in the Times was optimistic ,

“The jatropha bush seems an unlikely prize in the hunt for alternative energy, being an ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed. Hitherto, its use to humanity has principally been as a remedy for constipation. Very soon, however, it may be powering your car.
Almost overnight, the unloved Jatropha curcas has become an agricultural and economic celebrity, with the discovery that it may be the ideal biofuel crop, an alternative to fossil fuels for a world dangerously dependent on oil supplies and deeply alarmed by the effects of global warming.

If you GoogleJatropha’ now you will find many trials and projects from all over the world growing and testing this crop.
The plant was already well know in some countries as a malaria treatment, live fencing and for candle-making and, despite its potentially fatal properties (three untreated seeds can kill a person) as an ingredient in medicinal remedies around the world, hence the name “physic nut”. There doesn’t seem to be any down side to this plant as it grows almost anywhere, really quite liking arid and harsh conditions so we watch with interest its progress.

But getting back to the Gout plant, here is a closeup of the flower head where you can see the green pods developing. It would be wonderful to draw the whole thing but I should have to, either get my own plant, or use a photo as there are only a few flowers on each plant, and I would need more than a couple of hours.

My drawing shows the one pod that remained after the first one exploded. It broke away from its central stalk which is on the left. What first drew my attention to these pods was an empty seed capsule that was sitting on one of the leaves. It looked just like a beetle. The pod divides into 3 capsules, each holding a hard, pretty little seed and the seeds look like beetles too. Fascinating.


Gout Plant Pod and Seeds