The 13 species of Moringa tree are native to India, the Middle East and eastern Africa, including Madagascar. All are useful for food and medicine to some extent, but the commercially cultivated species is Moringa oleifera, a profusely white flowering, 10-foot tree with cork-like bark. Oleifera is native to India, where it is known as the "drumstick tree."
Moringa is the only genus in the Moringaceae family of the Brassicales (mustard oil) order. In the mid-1700s, the Swedish botanist Linnaeus erroneously assigned Moringa to the legume order because Moringa bears winged seeds in long beautiful capsules that resemble bean pods. In 1949, Moringa was identified as a family in the Violales (violet) order based on flower and embryo characters. In 2002, after 250 years of Moringa study, DNA and molecular techniques confirmed Moringa as its own family with one genus.
In its native range in sub-Himalayan India, Moringa is known as "drumstick tree" for the shape and size of its seed capsules. The pods are traditionally consumed as a fresh vegetable with a taste similar to asparagus. A horseradish-flavored condiment is prepared from the leaves and roots. Moringa wood can be used in traditional medicines and for making a blue dye. Oil pressed from the seeds is used for cooking and cosmetics.
The Jamaican attorney Hinton East introduced Moringa oleifera, then called Moringa pterygosperma, to Jamaica in 1784. He had established a private botanic garden in 1770 for his plant and seed import/export business. In Jamaica, the oil was developed as a lubricant, especially for watches, and was called "oil of ben." The oil was first chemically studied in 1847 and its isolated fatty acid was named "behenic."
Circa 2000 a Swiss corporation, Optima Environment, expected to bring Moringa to market as a flocculent, which clumps particles in water. Instead, Optima's partners at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology discovered that Moringa protein was more valuable for use as an antibiotic against resistant bacteria, including staph, strep and legionella. Moringa oil proved valuable to the cosmetic industry. In 1999, Optima established a Moringa plantation in Tanzania. It also contracted with local farmers to grow trees.
Worldwide each year, 6 million children die from drinking water contaminated with disease. Crushed seeds of the Moringa tree harvested during the dry season are positively charged and will attract and adhere to negatively charged bacteria and viruses. In addition, the antibiotics in Moringa help purify the water. Rural communities in Africa that cannot afford chemical water treatment can potentially purify their drinking water with Moringa seed filtration. Moringa is an introduced specimen that thrives throughout the tropics, in the same areas where simple water purification systems are needed. Moringa is also a nutritious food source for these same groups.