The first plant is the largest Moringa hildebrandtii at the moment in the collection. It was about the size of a pencil when planted, less than a year ago. Now it's twice my height.
Here are a series of photos showing how certain individuals and parts of the collection are coming along. There's still lots to do, but everything looks tidier and the plants are growing massively.
The first plant is the largest Moringa hildebrandtii at the moment in the collection. It was about the size of a pencil when planted, less than a year ago. Now it's twice my height.
The next was just a little seedling Moringa hildebrandtii, also now taller than I am.
Moringa borziana grows into a small, single- or sparingly branched treelet when given half a chance. Here, this one seems well on its way.
This Moringa concanensis is growing with a single massive stem.
Moringa ovalifolia for the first few years of life tend to grow mostly underground. The tuber becomes massive before much aboveground growth occurs.
Here are some views of the India and Madagascar sections. In the first photo you can barely see the plants, just their little pieces of pink flagging. In the last photo you can see that it is starting to look like a forest.
Here are a few more photos of the collection in May 2015
I collected a bunch more samples for protein leaf analysis, as well as samples for genetic analysis in our ongoing efforts to understand the difference between Moringa oleifera and Moringa concanensis. Conclusion: the collection is doing great and already fulfilling its scientific role.
As the plants grow, many are flowering for the first time. Here are a few that are in bloom now.
When I visited the wild locality, the plants were in fruit, and they were always very small in cultivation up to now. This means that I have never seen the flowers of this population of the species. I am very curious to see if they look like typical Moringa rivae ssp. rivae, which have cream sepals and brownish petals.
The International Moringa Germplasm Collection and its global consortium of collaborators is the best bet worldwide for studies to find out which Moringa has the highest protein content, the most digestible protein, the most powerful anticancer compound or the best activity in regulating diabetes. But maintaining the collection means at a minimum paying the water bill and keeping the gardeners paid.
Because they know that supporting the Collection ultimately means better moringa for everyone, Kuli Kuli Foods, a US maker of Moringa snacks and leaf powder, donates a portion of their sales toward maintenance of the Collection. So, please have a look at the video and click here to go to the page where you can purchase the products that benefit the Collection. Thanks for your help.
There are reasons to think that moringa has one of the most potent cancer chemopreventive agents known, but, like so many moringa properties, there are still no clinical trials in humans. Read on for more details.
The main planting out of the trees was in summer of 2014. While the plants are small, it’s necessary to baby them along. A forgetful neighbor is notorious for not tying up his goats well, and his three goats can often be seen around town, dragging their ropes behind them, standing in a tree munching on leaves or in someone’s yard eating their tomato plants. They seem to like trotting up the hill to the Collection, and my heart stops every time I see them. Some species are still very small and one goat mouthful would set them back considerably. Even though Moringa is very palatable, all of the plants have escaped being eaten so far.
It is trite among moringaphiles to make a big deal out of moringa growth rates, but I can't help it. The photos of M. drouhardii and M. hildebrandtii are a seedlings from mid-2014 and they are already taller than me (to my infinite relief- bigger trees are less susceptible to goats, ants, etc.). See photos below.
Here is a story that illustrates how perfect the climate and soil are here for moringas. I collected seed of Moringa borziana in southeastern Kenya in 1997. The seeds sprouted in 1998 and were kept very small in the greenhouse in Missouri until last year. I planted it out in late 2014 and immediately the powerful tropical sun burned the stem. This happens commonly in plants that have been grown in the shade and then are planted in full sun. It often helps to “compass” plants by keeping track of which side faced south and has therefore built up more sun resistance. Moringas almost never complain about sun, so in this case I hadn’t bothered. I wondered what to do, because the stem was dying from the tip down. Should I dig it up, disturbing the plant even more, or let it settle in? Large Moringa borziana tubers in the wild sit with their apices well below the soil level. The upper parts of the tubers always have abundant scars from old, dead stems. So I had reason to think that the the little M. borziana could re-sprout from below ground. I buried the tuber a little deeper and made the water basin a little wider, and sat back to wait. Two months later, the plant was over 50 cm tall, bigger than it has ever been, so a major success and a huge relief!
The big accomplishment of February was to finish the inventory of the plants in the botanical garden, assigning each a unique number so I can keep track of them in my records. Each plant gets three labels, two metal ones and one plastic one. The plants are still small to attach the labels with nails to the trunk, which I will do as soon as possible, but in the meantime we need to be very paranoid about keeping track of the identity of the trees, given that they lose so much value for research if the identity is lost. The next step is a map of all of individuals, so that if a label is lost it is still possible to reconstruct the ID. There are a few botanical garden apps for just such situations, but I haven't found one I'm entirely happy with yet.
So we're still in the stage of babying the trees, but we're getting there. In a few years, the trees should pretty much take care of themselves, but in the meantime the Collection is already meeting its goal of driving moringa research.
I was worried that it would be hard to grow Moringa peregrina here. The rainfall here is about 750 mm per year, considerably higher than in most of the places where Moringa peregrina grows. Also, I was worried about a moringa catch-22: Moringa peregrina plants can take a long time to grow aerial stems in pots, but I didn’t want to plant them out in the ground in the botanical garden until they grow aerial stems. Like many species of Moringa, Moringa peregrina has a tuberous juvenile stage. It grows, often for many years, as just a tuber underground, throwing up slender shoots every year that then die back to the tuber. Only after the tuber reaches a certain size does the plant form an aboveground stem that does not die back every year. Even in the first few years this stem can still die back all the way to the tuber if there is a very severe drought. But eventually the stem remains year after year, the beginning of the life of the plant as a tree. With a little patience, though, and relatively large pots, the M. peregrinas have started to form large enough above ground stems, 10-40 cm tall, that I feel confident about putting them out in the ground.
Other species, like Moringa concanensis or M. drouhardii grow in dense tropical dry forest. They compete well with weeds and other forest plants. Moringa peregrina often grows on bare rocky slopes where they are the only tree in the landscape. Not accustomed to competition, I wanted to make sure that the peregrinas would do well when planted out. I was also worried that the relatively high humidity here would be a problem. It doesn’t rain 8 months of the year here, but we are so close to the coast that the humidity is always high. So I was concerned that the plants might be vulnerable to fungal infection and rot. Once the plants are established and growing in pots, though, we have had no losses, and they are doing just as well as all the other species.
So, in June we made a trial planting of four M. peregrinas of various provenances on the driest, most exposed portion of the ridge that runs through the collection lot. It seems like the perfect place for the drought-loving M. peregrina. Their aboveground growth has been slow to date—the tallest plants are just 40 cm tall—and I suspect they are busy allocating resources to roots. But they are holding their own and producing aboveground growth much faster than I have ever seen in pots. So we declared the planting a success and in September started about 10X10 meters of a steep, west-facing slope for planting out more Moringa peregrina.
Because Moringa peregrina grows in the open, we wanted to plant them out on the most competition-free slope possible. The Taminco company here in Mexico very kindly donated 20 liters of metamsodium, a soil fumigant. After a good rain had soaked the soil, we diluted the metamsodium, which in this case came under the evocative trade name of Mercenario, and poured it into the soil. We watered it in and then covered the entire parcel with plastic and weighted down the plastic around the edges. After a month, we took off the plastic and let the soil air out. Metamsodium is wonderful because it kills absolutely everything—weed seeds, plants, nematodes, fungi, provided that it is sufficiently concentrated and goes deep enough.
After a month’s airing out, we noted with a little dismay that there were some Antigonon vines coming back from their underground tubers. This is a horrible weed that roots everywhere and produces very firmly rooted tubers everywhere. The vine itself is fragile so it is impossible to pull the tubers out. A perfectly designed weed but a nightmare to control as it reaches up, sometimes overnight, to grab onto the moringas and smother them. This is almost certainly not the fault of the Mercenario but our not watering in the fumigant well enough on in all areas.
Undaunted, we whacked back the Antigonon and planted out a little over a dozen Moringa peregrina saplings to see how they do. Now, just a few days after transplanting, they look great, with no transplant shock apparent. Given that it grows in fairly readily accessible places like the Golan, Egypt, etc., someone else must grow M. peregrina in the Americas, but I don’t know of anyone. Check back and hopefully in a few years in this space I will be telling stories about the first flowering and fruiting of M. peregrina here, so far from their native habitat.
A major research milestone for the collection. The idea of the collection is to gather the widest diversity of Moringa germplasm in the world together in one place. Once this diversity is gathered, then it is possible to start answering our questions about moringa—what is the most nutritious species? Having identified the species, we can start looking for the most nutritious individual, or variety, or population of that species. We can compare the cancer chemopreventive agents across the members of the collection or their glucoregulatory activity. But we need the trees growing and healthy, and we need them large. We need them large to be able to harvest the leaves, flowers, fruits, wood, seeds, or whatever part needs study.
So, it was a major success that, just 7 months after the initial planting out, I was able to harvest leaf tissue from 55 individuals from 11 species plus one interspecific hybrid of Moringa representing 46 different localities or seed sources. I sent these samples to collaborator Renuka Sankaran, of Lehman College/ City University of New York. Renuka is a specialist in nutritional aspects of edible plants, especially protein and mineral nutrition. Along with her student Scott Macbeth, they will screen these samples to start looking for the “best of the best” Moringa in terms of nutrition. We’ll keep you posted on our findings.
Moringas planted out in the ground tend to have few pests, at least here far from their native range. Here at the collection the only real problem are leafcutter ants. Leafcutter ants are charming in their way. They come out at night from often very large anthills, and form long parades of ants, each carrying a carefully cut piece of leaf or flower like a parasol. Sometimes the trails are so well used and so many ants flow over them that the ants clear a path some 10 cm wide. The remove every stick and pebble and leaf, so it ends up looking like an ant superhighway, especially at night when it is choked with ants with their leafy cargoes, and bumping into one another. Most people think that the ants eat the leaves, but their story is more elaborate. The ants takes the bits of leaves down into their large underground chambers and arrange them just right. As the ants carefully tend them, fungi grow on the leaves, and it is these fungi that the ants actually eat. So, the ants are little fungus farmers, not leaf eaters.
But leaves are a pretty diffuse energy source, so the ants need a lot of them to grow enough fungal food for themselves. The ants prefer leaves that have low amounts of cellulose and therefore high amounts of cell contents. These leaves are easier to cut and pack more nutrition per piece of leaf for the fungi. With their filmy, highly nutritious leaves, moringas are the perfect food for leafcutters. In a single night they can defoliate a whole tree. At the moment, many of the plants in the moringa germplasm collection are small. As a result, a little distraction on our part can mean finding the plants defoliated in the morning. Given that many of the species, at least the small northeast African ones, often grow only in short pulses, a defoliation can set them back a good six months. Even the large, continuously growing species like Moringa hildebrandtii get their growth slowed down from a complete defoliation.
So every night it’s up to the collection with a flashlight. When we find ants carrying leaves, we follow them to find the nest. This is sometimes hard because the ants often nest under piles of debris or travel far from the nest, and come in from well outside the collection lot. One of the ongoing tasks these days is clearing the piles of sticks that then get covered with vines, and under which the ants like to nest, precisely to make spotting anthills easier.
Once we find a nest, it’s time to poison the ants. The cleverest method we use is an insecticide that here is sold as Trompa. It comes in long, slender dark pellets that are impregnated with a bait. This bait odor is irresistable to the ants, and they instantly swarm out to take the pellets down into the anthill. They seem to like the odor so much that they even do this in the day sometimes. Once they have the pellets down in their underground chambers, the humidity vaporizes the poison, apparently abamectin, in the pellets, gassing the ants in their homes. The next night there are usually just a few ants around the hill, and after a little more Trompa the colony is finished. Trompa seems sensitive to temperature, and if it gets a little warm or the jar gets some direct sunglight, the pellets lose their dark color and turn a light tobacco. These pellets are always ignored by the ants. So we also use powdered pyrethroids as a backup. It would seem like it would be less effective, given that the ants do not carry it down into their nest. But a generous dusting around the entrance of the nest does seem to kill all of the ants in one or two days, because after dusting there are no more ants to be seen.
Once the trees get bigger, a few leafcutters won’t make much of a difference. But for now, while they’re small, it’s us or the ants.
The moringa germplasm collection is designed to provide material for research anywhere in the world, with the aim of providing moringas for the entire world. This is why we called it the “International” moringa germplasm collection. But any project is embedded in its local community, and it just so happens that this project is in a remote little corner of the tropical Pacific coast of Mexico. Given that there are no native species of Moringa native to Mexico, this might seem like an odd place for a Moringa germplasm collection. But, as I will discuss in a separate post, Mexico has a centuries-long relationship with Moringa, so maybe it’s not such a strange place for the collection. In any case, the climate is absolutely ideal, and the genus is so widespread that no country has a monopoly on Moringa species. Kenya is the country with the highest number of native species, plus M. oleifera is cultivated there, so if we are going on the basis of number of species, then dead to rights the collection should be in Kenya. In fact, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute in the late 90s had a “moringaboretum” near Kitui, where they grew many plants, including samples that I collected throughout Kenya and Madagascar. I am not sure what the status of these plants is anymore. But the present collection is, as I mentioned, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
It is near one of my university’s biological field research stations. This is very convenient because when we need a lab or other facilities they are close by. The collection is not at the station, though, because the station preserves a large amount of native tropical dry forest. While no moringa species have ever been known to be weedy, especially not in Mexico, there is always a risk that a botanical garden can introduce new weeds to native habitat. Also, there is not much point in clearing native forest inside a biosphere reserve to plant exotic plants. Even more importantly is what the location of the collection says about our societal commitments. The International Moringa Germplasm Collection is designed to produce scientific results that have direct relevance for community development. Hence, the collection is located in a little village not far from the biosphere reserve. The neighbors all know me, and with moringa being the “medicinal” plant of the moment around here, almost everyone has heard of moringa. But there has been so much work to do that I haven’ really taken the time to explain to the local community what we are doing.
Every year my university’s biological station holds an open house event. The station, usually open only to researchers, opens its doors to the public. The researchers who carry out projects at the station come and put up stands to explain their research to visitors in the friendly, simple terms of science outreach. It was a perfect opportunity to have our coming out party. The event spurred me into making a brochure for local distribution on moringa and on the project. The brochure is in Spanish and talks about the aims of the Collection and about Moringa in general, especially what it’s good for and how to consume it. You can download the brochure here.
There was a lot of interest. Every group that came by the stand included someone who had heard of moringa. Interestingly, all of them used it or heard of it as used “medicinally,” never just as a vegetable. Everyone said it was for cancer and for diabetes. No one reported actually just eating it, and almost everyone said they hated eating vegetables. The most common uses were all ones in which the consumption was easy and minimal. For example, a lot of people reported boiling the leaves and drinking the water in place of regular drinking water all day long. Others dry the leaves and crumble them on food “like oregano.” Some make a blended “green drink,” with fruit juices and moringa. Other people take the seeds “one seed in the morning and one at night, on an empty stomach.” Most of these practices seem the result of the creative imaginations of people who don’t want to eat healthy diets that include lots of vegetables (or any vegetables) plus a general lack of solid scientific information. Tea made from fresh boiled leaves tastes terrible by the way. Tea from dried leaves tastes great. Who knows if it’s good for you, but it certainly can’t hurt. And there would seem to be no good reason at all to eat the raw seeds. The nutrition and the antioxidants are in the leaves. People want a magic pill, though, and so some are attracted to the seed. I told them what I tell everyone: given the scientific information available, the best bet is to eat moringa as a vegetable.
Some of the visitors even said that they would try it. At the next event, maybe we’ll have moringa dishes. But, at least we have officially presented ourselves to the community.
The whole idea of the International Moringa Germplasm Collection is to provide material of Moringa species for research. But Moringa species are all attractive and unusual plants, and I suspect that when the trees are large, in a few years, the collection will start attracting attention from folks who don’t want to do research on the trees but just want to stroll among them. To give visitors the idea of what Moringas look like in the wild, we have left some native tropical dry forest plants here and there. This gives an idea of the sorts of contexts that moringas can be found in in their native habitats, most of which look very similar to the local Mexican tropical dry forest. Here there are Bursera (copal) species, in Moringa country there is the lookalike and closely related Commiphora (myrrh). Here there are countless Acacias, and in Moringa country too. Here there are Jatrophas, and in Africa as well. Here there are cacti of all sizes, and in Moringa country there are Euphorbias. The native forest at the germplasm site was cut down some 15 years ago. Only one original native tree was left standing, a Caesalpinia, and it was badly damaged in hurricane Jova in 2012. But there are nevertheless a surprising number of very interesting native plants here and there on the site. Here are some photos of a few of them.