Moringa oleifera is a fast-growing, deciduous tree. It can reach a height of 10–12 m (32–40 ft) and the trunk can reach a diameter of 45 cm (1.5 ft). The bark has a whitish-grey color and is surrounded by thick cork. Young shoots have purplish or greenish-white, hairy bark. The tree has an open crown of drooping, fragile branches and the leaves build up a feathery foliage of tripinnate leaves.
The flowers are fragrant and bisexual, surrounded by five unequal, thinly veined, yellowish-white petals. The flowers are about 1.0-1.5 cm (1/2″)long and 2.0 cm (3/4″)broad. They grow on slender, hairy stalks in spreading or drooping later flower clusters which have a length of 10–25 cm.
Flowering begins within the first six months after planting. In seasonally cool regions, flowering only occurs once a year between April and June. In more constant seasonal temperatures and with constant rainfall, flowering can happen twice or even all year-round.
The fruit is a hanging, three-sided brown capsule of 20–45 cm size which holds dark brown, globular seeds with a diameter around 1 cm. The seeds have three whitish papery wings and are dispersed by wind and water.
In cultivation, it is often cut back annually to 1–2 m (3–6 ft)and allowed to regrow so the pods and leaves remain within arm’s reach
Moringa oleifera can be cultivated for its leaves, pods, and/or its kernels for oil extraction and water purification. The yields vary widely, depending on season, variety, fertilization, and irrigation regimen. Moringa yields best under warm, dry conditions with some supplemental fertilizer and irrigation. Harvest is done manually with knives, sickles, and stabs with hooks attached. Pollarding, coppicing and lopping or pruning are recommended to promote branching, increase production and facilitate harvesting.
When the plant is grown from cuttings, the first harvest can take place 6–8 months after planting. Often, the fruits are not produced in the first year, and the yield is generally low during the first few years. By year two, it produces around 300 pods, by year 3 around 400-500. A good tree can yield 1000 or more pods. In India, a hectare can produce 31 tons of pods per year. Under North Indian conditions, the fruits ripen during the summer. Sometimes, particularly in South India, flowers and fruit appear twice a year, so two harvests occur, in July to September and March to April.
Average yields of 6 tons/ha/year in fresh matter can be achieved. The harvest differs strongly between the rainy and dry seasons, with 1120 kg/ha per harvest and 690 kg/ha per harvest, respectively. The leaves and stems can be harvested from the young plants 60 days after seeding and then another seven times in the year. At every harvest, the plants are cut back to within 60 cm of the ground. In some production systems, the leaves are harvested every 2 weeks.
The cultivation of M. oleifera can also be done intensively with irrigation and fertilization with suitable varieties. Trials in Nicaragua with 1 million plants per hectare and 9 cuttings/year over 4 years gave an average fresh matter production of 580 metric tons/ha/year, equivalent to about 174 metric tons of fresh leaves.
One estimate for yield of oil from kernels is 250 l/ha. The oil can be used as a food supplement, as a base for cosmetics, and for hair and the skin.