Miracle Trees (Moringa Oleifera)

“Often referred to as the ‘Miracle Tree’, the Moringa Oleifera is native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwest India. Gram for gram, Moringa leaves contain seven times the vitamin C in oranges, four times the calcium in milk, four times the vitamin A in carrots, twice the protein in milk and three times the potassium in bananas. It is for this and other extraordinary properties that it has been referred to as the world’s most generous tree…”

                                                                                                           From the Nottingham Contemporary website.

While in the Study for my second Thursday afternoon slot yesterday (during the residency I’ll be there from 2 – 4pm every Thursday in February, then from 3 – 5pm during March) I had the chance to talk a little with John Newling about the Miracle Trees currently growing in the room, when the artist came by to check humidity, water levels and the general health of his plants as part of a fascinating project merging art with science, gardening, genetics and potential food production.

It turns out that far from being just a few plants in an art gallery, the young trees in their climate-controlled perspex box are only the second examples of Moringa Oleifera to have been cultivated from seed in the UK (the others are at the Eden Project in Cornwall) .

The growing plants are accompanied by a variety of artworks created from the process of cultivation, including pressed specimens mounted and framed on the Study wall (showing some of the root system), a series of books open on a shelf with pressed leaves marking significant passages in such texts as Charles Darwin’s The Origin Of Species  and a film in which the artist describes the earlier stages of his project.

Here are a few other things I learned from a chat with Newling yesterday afternoon:

1: The plants are drought resistant, but often susceptible to pests. Newling notes that where Moringa Oleifera are cultivated elsewhere in the world, growers pour circles of ash around the roots to prevent insects accessing the young plants at ground level. Even in their artificial environment at Nottingham Contemporary, he has removed insects from the box, where they seem to have got in through the adjustible gaps designed to control humidity.

2: He needs to keep returning to monitor water and humidity levels. This is partly because they need very little water but are affected if levels of moisture in the soil fall too low and also because the public display is sometimes altered by visitors, who are often tempted to open or close the humidity controls.

3: Newling’s plants have so far grown entirely in ‘constructed soil’ made from documents containing the genetic code (written by Craig Venter) for a potential artificial life-form. He notes that they will soon be replanted in normal compost as one aspect of the ‘constructed soil’ is that the levels of nutrients are not known, and the plants may be coming to a point of having exhausted the various nutrients they require to thrive.

4: Newling explains (as we walk around the plants, looking at new shoots of growth) that his trees are growing rapidly: probably on Monday (while the galleries are closed) he will be adding extra levels to the perspex greenhouse to allow the Moringa Oleifera more space. He will also, he thinks, be reducing the numbers of plants on show in order to give additional space for those remaining to spread their leaves.

5: Newling explains that the plants have a particularly interesting root structure that he has so far been unable to preserve in his pressings: the long roots push very deep (being adapted to dry conditions, and soils that may be thin in nutrients) and when examined are also protected by a kind of ‘ball’ type structure that has the texture of densely woven grey fibres – “like the hair of an old man”.

6: When Moringa Oleifera are cultivated (their leaves can be harvested and used for vitamin supplements, biofuels, food and many other uses) one common technique used is to cut the tops of the trees off, so the leaves grow outward rather than upward: this makes them easier to collect. Once mature, the trees have a 50 year lifespan, and can therefore produce very large quantities of leaves. He is hoping to create a salad using Moringa Oleifera for people to try at some point during this project.

7: Moringa Oleifera has what Newling calls ‘expressive leaves’: their needs are made obvious in their appearance. He points to one extremely sprightly tree, then another whose branches seem tensed, the leaves slightly clenched. Newling also points out that the occasional yellowed branches and leaves seem to be a technique the plant uses to direct its energies, effectively shutting down a single leaf or branch and dropping it, in order to direct its energy into new growth elsewhere. These yellowed leaves do not seem to indicate anything adverse in the general health of the plants.

8. In relation to this, Newling mentions the lemon tree, which appears able to calculate its own capacity to support the weight of fruit, and ‘drops’ all but the optimal quantity of fruit its structure can carry. It is still not understood how the lemon tree achieves this, or what processes it uses to calculate what the optimal quantity of fruit to sustain might be.

9. He also notes that Moringa Oleifera can survive in the UK climate to levels just above freezing. Around freezing point, they ‘drop’ all their leaves, and appear dead, but can regenerate quickly. Placed back into a regulated growing environment, they can re-grow all their leaves within around 10 weeks if conditions are right.

10: He explains that the trees would generally flower within 12 weeks. They produce a white blossom that – if light levels in the Study are sufficient – should be visible during March. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether these plants (in their artificial environment) will behave exactly as could be expected of examples in the wild.

11: Newling also jokes that his relationship to the plants has become “a bit Robinson Crusoe” and says they currently keep appearing in his dreams. He’s looking for a copy of Robinson Crusoe to add to the books in the Study beneath the pressed specimens, for this reason, but none of the shops in town seem to be selling it at the moment.

3 Responses to “Miracle Trees (Moringa Oleifera)”
  1. I can’t say how much I love to use Moringa in my daily routine. I also love your blog, please accept my comment. Thank you.

  2. June says:

    I would like to try growing moringa for the nutritional value and I am sure it will make a wonderful pot plant. Can you put me in touch with UK growers, how to get success with germination etc. Planting instructions for UK. Very grateful.

  3. I am from India living now in UK.. I know the good use of this tree.. we have one in my home in India.. My mom is an expert in making different delicious and nutritious recipes on this.. Miss it a lot.. I would be greatful if anyone help me to plant it here in UK.. My mail id is telmeurdreams123@gmail.com..

    Thank you.

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