At first glance, gangly Moringa oleifera, with its thin stems and long seedpods, doesn’t look all that impressive. But looks can be deceiving: Ounce for ounce, the leaves contain three times the iron of spinach, four times the calcium of milk, and more protein than sardines.
Farmed in its native India for centuries, M. oleifera is just now catching on in the United States. “It’s easy to grow and loves the heat,” says Fred Dixon of The Orchid, in Goleta, California, one of a handful of American farms cultivating the tree. Dixon started last year with 800 seeds and now has more than a thousand 13-footers. While the leaves can be prepared like spinach, Dixon also dries and crushes them into a powder that’s gaining popularity among smoothie-lovers.
Moringa’s myriad applications go far beyond health shakes, however. Its roots have anti-inflammatory benefits; the seed cake (what’s left after oil extraction) can purify drinking water, fight bacteria, and act as fertilizer. In addition, growing M. oleifera combats erosion. Since 2010, Zambia’s Imagine Rural Development Initiative has used the plant to lift families out of poverty, helping locals start and manage their own moringa plantations. Today, 60 Zambian farmers tend some six million trees, feeding malnourished communities and boosting regional economies. Superfood, indeed.