Sunny Huang isn’t the only moringa grower in Texas, but she’s the only one who has been at it since 2003. The 74-year-old lives on a wooded lot just off U.S. 71 near Bastrop, where she grows moringa, a plant used in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America in cooking and for its healing properties.
For almost twenty years, she’s been selling moringa plants, seeds, and products made from this fernlike deciduous plant with small, circle-shaped leaves along a long, flexible (and edible) stem. The leaves and pods can be used to make dishes like drumstick sambar, an Indian lentil soup, but her passion is the plant—growing it, tending it, and encouraging others to buy the seeds to germinate for themselves.
This distant relative to horseradish and cabbage can grow up to forty feet tall and be used as a living fence, but growers like Huang cut back their trees each year to keep the stems tender and leaves easier to harvest from a height she can reach. The leaves are slightly sweet and peppery, and contain vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. The seed pods are also rich in protein and high in omega-3 fatty acids. In ancient Egypt, they were used to clarify water.
Since 2003, Huang has been tending a small patch of moringa trees on her sun-dappled property filled with pecan trees and the occasional child’s toy. Her forty-year-old daughter, Julie Gau Wheeler, and Julie’s husband and seven-year-old son moved to the same land several years ago to help with the business.
This fall, dozens of plastic containers held tiny moringa trees with small round leaves the size of a pencil eraser. These fragile plants thrive under Huang’s care. She sells the seedlings to customers. But Miracle Garden didn’t start as a money-making venture; it started as a promise, made to a family friend who was dying of cancer. The friend, known to the family as Uncle Wu, had gone to school with Huang’s now ex-husband; they played on the national baseball team of Taiwan together. (“My father was a left-handed pitcher, and [Uncle Wu] was the catcher,” Julie says.) Huang went to visit him and heard his endless praise for moringa, whose seeds and powder replenished his energy after chemotherapy. Huang had never heard of moringa, but she made a promise to Uncle Wu that she would grow the plant and tell others about its soothing powers in his honor.
Around the same time, Huang’s daughter, Abbey, was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. Abbey was in the middle of her medical residency in New York when she found out about her illness. She needed care, and Huang thought that moving her to a warmer climate might help her health. They meant to go to California but, through a series of mishaps, ended up in North Austin. Julie soon followed.
“At the end, she could still walk around the house,” Huang says. “She said goodbye to them. She told her sisters, ‘I’m leaving now. Thank you, everyone, who comes to see me.’ But she didn’t say goodbye to me. It was her way to take care of me.” Abbey died in June 2002, and by 2003, Huang had moringa seeds sprouting in the windowsill.
“When I promise people, I like to be true and do it,” Huang says. “All of the seeds that [Uncle Wu] gave me grew into long tall stalks. When the wind blows, they are kind of like dancing in the wind. It is so beautiful.”
Huang pulls out a piece of dried moringa wood. It’s lighter than styrofoam. This is the only remnant of those original trees. This one died in 2011, after a particularly rainy season that caused the roots to rot. (Last winter’s freeze didn’t kill the more established trees, but many had to be cut back to their roots.)
Moringa trees thrive in hot climates and a loose, sandy loam, which means Texas can be a decent place to raise moringa, if you don’t have too much clay in the soil. Huang doesn’t grow enough moringa for all of the products she makes, so she buys moringa seeds, oil, and powder from wholesalers to make value-added products, like balm, tea, soap, oil, and a powder that makes a matcha-like drink, all of which run from $2 to $55. She also has her own nursery where she raises moringa seedlings for customers who want to grow their own “miracle trees” at home.
Miracle Garden may be the only moringa-focused business in Texas, but you can find other brands of moringa products at places like Granel Spice Market or Superfood Village in Houston. Alamo Botanicals, an apothecary with four locations in San Antonio and New Braunfels, makes a skin serum, lotion, lip balms, and salves ($4 to $55) with moringa. Poteet Moringa Farm Co. in Atascosa County and King Sovereign Farms in Brazoria County also grow and produce moringa products but have been on hold since the pandemic. You’re most likely to find moringa at a specialty tea store, where grocers often carry the fresh leaves to steep for tea.
Researchers are still trying to figure out why moringa seems to have such a powerful healing effect on everything from diabetes to high blood pressure. The roots are inedible but have antiseptic properties, the leaves are used in cooking and for tea, and the dark green oil can be used topically or ingested. Studies have shown that the seeds can substantially reduce waterborne bacterial diseases.
Huang has never claimed to be a medical expert. Still, she has been in business long enough to have heard the stories. “When people come and say, ‘Sunny, I have good news.’ They say, ‘I’m free! Cancer, gone. Tumor, gone,’” she says. “That feeling is more than if you make one million dollars. Money cannot compare. I feel so rich.”
Julie Gau Wheeler says her parents owned many businesses over the years, including a laundromat and a liquor store. When they moved to Austin, it made sense that she would start another enterprise, but a moringa business “was scary because no one had heard of the product.”
The venture didn’t make a profit for many years, so Huang worked various jobs in Austin, including as a clerk at Breed and Co. But after years of loyal customers and word-of-mouth advertising, she finally got her products in a few local retailers and set up a storefront on her property near Bastrop.
The superfood craze led new customers to look for moringa products, so in 2011 they added online sales, which spiked during the pandemic. (This isn’t the first time interest in moringa has spiked. A Houston food blogger says a 1983 romantic comedy whose title translates to “Saree Knot” caused the pods to soar in price overnight. The movie included a scene in which the protagonist puts moringa pods in every dish in an attempt to seduce her lover.)
Gayle Engels, special projects director of the American Botanical Council, which has been based in Texas since 1988, says scientists published more than 270 studies on moringa in 2021, and the analytical chemistry supports the traditional claims for the plant’s ability to lower blood pressure, regular blood sugar, and boost breastmilk production.
“Moringa is part of the Brassicales order, which means it has all of those chemical compounds that are in brassicas that are responsible for the antioxidant properties that work against inflammation,” Engels says. What excites her most about the plant, for people who live in warm climates, is that you can grow it and put it in food, making it relatively easy to incorporate into your diet.
Gau Wheeler, a graphic designer, is stepping in more these days to oversee online sales and accounting for what remains the only moringa company in Texas. Huang is still the boss, but her daughter hopes she’ll work less in years to come.
Huang says that, twenty years after the toughest era of her life, she feels more like a painter than a farmer. Her dream of sharing moringa with others, in some ways in some ways “larger than life,” Gau Wheeler says. “This business speaks to so much of my mom’s spirit. Getting by with the struggles and enjoying the sunshine.”