Moringa oleifera

drumstick tree


Moringa oleifera

Lam. 1785

pronounced: moh-RING-uh oh-lee-IFF-er-uh

(Moringaceae — the moringa family)


common names: drumstick tree, moringa, horseradish tree

Moringa is the Latinized form of murunga, the Sinhalese vernacular name of the tree; oleifera is from the Latin olea, the olive (oil), and fero, to bear, referring to the oil derived from the seeds. The drumstick in the common name is from the appearance of the seed pods, and horseradish from the taste of the roots.

This is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree that has been grown since ancient times, and is now naturalized and cultivated throughout much of the tropical and subtropical world. Its exact origin is obscure, but it may have been indigenous to the sub-Himalayan parts of northern India. It has been planted as an ornamental in many parts of northern Australia, and is now regarded as naturalized in Queensland and parts of Western Australia. The tree pictured is a street tree in Birt Street, Picnic Bay.

The species appears to spread relatively slowly, but eventually forms dense thickets around the parent trees. It may well pose a long-term threat to some ecosystems.

The tree is usually less than 10 m high, but can grow to about 15 m. It develops a large underground rootstock, and normally has a single main trunk with a wide, open, umbrella-shaped crown. The trunk is generally about 10 and 45 cm in diameter, but can grow larger. It is covered in a pale grey bark. The wood is relatively soft, but the bark is tough, and varies from smooth to rough in texture, but is usually not fissured. When damaged, it exudes a whitish to reddish gum. The younger stems are finely pubescent, and the younger shoots are greenish or purplish in colour.

The large alternate leaves are tripinnate, and anything up to 60 cm in length. They bear tiny stalked glands at the base of the petiole and leaflets, that exude a clear or amber-coloured liquid. Individual leaflets are ovate, elliptic or oblong in shape, (10 – 24 mm long by 5 – 18 mm broad); but the terminal leaflet on each petiolule is usually obovate and slightly larger than the others. They have rounded to cuneate bases, entire margins, rounded to emarginate apices, and are borne on stalks 1–4 mm long.

The inflorescence is a widely-spreading axillary panicle 8 – 30 cm long. The flower buds are ovate in shape, and the flowers are white to cream, fragrant, about 2.5 cm in diameter. Each flower has 5 petal-like sepals (3 of which are reflexed when the buds open) and 5 petals (4 reflexed). The two dorsal sepals and one dorsal petal that remain un-reflexed form a projecting keel, while the rest of the perianth reflexes downwards to form a ‘banner’ perpendicular to the keel. The sepals are white or cream, sometimes with yellow streaks in the centre. The white or cream petals are slightly spatulate, with prominent veins. They have acute apices.

The 5 fully-formed stamens, with waxy yellow or orange anthers, alternate with a row of 5 staminodes, and all have filaments that are hairy at the base. The ovary is also hairy, and oblong (about 5 mm in length) with a single locule containing numerous ovules. It has a single, slightly hairy style and a minute stigma. Flowing can occur throughout the year.

The large elongated fruit capsules (usually up to about 50 cm long, although they can grow to 90 cm) have 9 lengthwise ribs. They are green and somewhat tomentose when young, but mature to a pale brown. They are dehiscent. There are about 20 seeds per capsule, subglobose or slightly 3-angled with 3 papery wings. They are dark brown or blackish, and embedded in the pits of the valves of the fruit.

The Drumstick Tree is widely cultivated in many parts of Asia, especially in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and in Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, and South America.

Many parts of the tree are edible. Regional uses vary widely, and include:

      • the immature seed pods (drumsticks), popular in Asia and Africa;
      • leaves, especially in the Philippines, Cambodia, Africa, southern India and Sri Lanka;
      • mature seeds;
      • roots.

The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms. The bark, sap, roots, leaves, seeds, oil and flowers are widely used in traditional medicines. In Ayurvedic medicine, the leaves are believed to affect blood pressure and glucose levels. In Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines, a concoction of the leaves is considered to increase lactation in nursing mothers.

Mature seeds yield an edible oil, clear and odourless, that resists rancidity. The seed cake remaining after oil extraction is used as a fertilizer, or as a flocculent to purify water. The oil also has potential as a biofuel. The roots are shredded, and used, like horseradish, as a condiment.

The Moringa Moth Noorda blitealis uses the tree as a food source for its caterpillars.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2013-2015
Page last updated 7th February 2019