A new herb has started to pop up in our supermarkets – at least, it’s new to me. I can’t think that I have ever seen it on the shelves before. From organic herbal tea bags by Sekem – “rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins necessary for the body” – to packets of fresh leaves from Ramsco – “best remedy for natural weight loss…. Tiny leaves. Enormous benefits” – moringa is being promoted for an astonishing range of benefits.
So what is it, and where does it come from?
Moringa spp., family Moringaceae, appear in the RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*. Endemic across a wide belt from Africa and Madagascar to Arabia and India, they tend to form dense trees of some size – M. oliefera may be up to 7m tall – with bipinnate leaves composed of many small leaflets, oval in shape and bright-to-dark-green in colour.
Almost every part of the tree is useful, the leaves for infusions, as with the Sekem tea bags, and the roots for a condiment quite like horseradish (and this is one common name for the tree, by the way). Unripe pods and young leaves are eaten as vegetables in India, while the flowers are used to flavour curries.
The leaves are said to taste like mustard, but to my mind infusions made with the fresh leaves or using the bags were insipid. They could have been made with lettuce. Hmm.
But here’s an interesting story: The bark yields ben gum (thus another name, ben tree) and the seeds are the source of ben oil, widely used in foods, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics because it doesn’t go rancid. And – surprise! – the ancient Egyptians knew all about it.
According to Lisa Manniche in “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal”* M. pterygosperma is indigenous to the country. Maybe the Egyptians didn’t know, or need to know, about the business of weight loss, but they valued the oil and used it extensively. The New Kingdom tomb of a high official named Maya was found to contain ten jars of sweet moringa oil for his funeral procession. One had an inscription listing the contents as best quality moringa oil, gum and mandrake.**
In the ancient pharmacopoeia, the oil was a significant ingredient in medications, “either on its own or as a vehicle, frequently with honey, for remedies incorporating other ingredients,” Manniche adds. Mostly it helped to combat stomach ache or cramps; but it could be applied to aching teeth, or to a wound to stem the flow of blood.
So I imagine the ancient army marching with moringa in their first-aid pouches, rather as aloe was used by the Romans according to Dioscorides.
M. oliefera seems to have even wider medicinal potential from promoting lactation in nursing mothers to combatting TB and septicaemia to lowering lipid and glucose levels – thereby assisting in controlling diabetes and heart disease – to stabilising the fluctuations in mood and wellbeing of those prone to depression. Or so it is claimed.*
Coming back to the packet of leaves I found in our local supermarket, the label lists a number of nutritional benefits such as “7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk” and more. Some websites go further: the leaves are rich in antioxidants and filled with protein. Clearly, moringa is a quiet and self-effacing wonder-tree, a rich resource to be tapped to help supplement diets at a time when there is considerable food-stress in many parts of the world – too many calories or two few calories, and sparse or inadequate nutrients either way.
And there’s one further thing: using a combination of a cloth and crushed seeds of moringa you can make a simple, effective and cheap filter to purify drinking water. Now, I wonder, did the ancient Egyptian army carry moringa seeds and lengths of linen cloth on campaign to keep the water supply safe? I’d love to know!
- An Encyclopedia of Herbs, Royal Horticultural Society, pub. Dorling Kindersley
- An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, Lisa Manniche, pub. AUC Press
- ** Mandrake (Mandragora spp.) is another fascinating herb, much used in ancient Egypt, but risky as it is part of the Solanaceae family along with deadly nightshade etc. Known for its anaesthetic and antiseptic properties and as an aphrodisiac.
- For websites with further info, especially about the health benefits of moringa, see: