The Argan Tree (Argania spinosa) is endemic to the country of Morocco with a few outlaying hectares of growth in
the easternmost townships of Algeria. It has been an important plant in the region for thousands of years and has recently exploded in Europe and North America as a luxury beauty care item. I actually use it myself, and decided to investigate exactly what this plant (and it’s precious oil) was all about.
Turns out there is a lot going on, especially in the last 100 or so years. Environmentally, the Argan tree has a very important function: it prevents the encroachment of the Sahara Desert northward. The trees are adapted to grow in the poor semi-desert soils along the edge of the true desert. Their long roots are powerful enough to withstand wind erosion and hold the soil in place, preventing desertification. This enables the people living in these areas to cultivate food crops and graze goats.
In fact, the goats are very important to the tree. The gnarled shape of the trunk enables the goats to scamper up into the canopy to eat the leaves and fruits of the plant. And when those fruits are passed, what remains is the nut. Traditionally, this nut was collected from the remains and then cracked open with a rock. The kernel inside was ground down into a paste, from which the Argan Oil was extracted.
Oil production was done mainly for home use because it was such a time intensive process and there was not much demand for distribution of the product. This lead to a rapid deforestation of the Argan Tree. By the 20th century, an increasing population in the tree’s native range lead to the destruction of half of the Argan woodland due to over-collection of fuel wood and fruit, over grazing, the clearing of land, and the introduction of intense agriculture. In 1998, UNESCO declared the remaining forest a biosphere reserve, which aims to bring sustainable practices to the remaining woodland through research studies.
However, preservation of the Argan Tree is on the upswing since the explosion of it’s oil as a health and beauty product in North American and European Markets. Data released in 2013 showed that wholesale prices of the oil increased by 50% since 2007. Suddenly, it was the it cosmetic product to have. In fact, I can’t even find a reference to it on the internet as a beauty trend before this piece written in October of 2008. Which means that basically overnight, Argan became a household word and the demand for this oil, which barely had a market outside of Morocco before, soared.
Now, this once razed scrub tree is providing a valuable crop for the people of Morocco. Oil production has traditionally been woman’s work and remains as such today: collectives of woman-run co-operatives have grown in the region and help the women support themselves and their families through the collection of fair wages for their work.
An interesting point to note: while it has exploded as the next “fountain of youth” serum in North America, in Morocco it’s use has been culinary. When roasted, the kernels impart a deeply nutty flavor that is used to flavor many dishes. This is not to say they do not use it as a beauty tool as well, but for as popular as it has been here in the United States, it is interesting that it only has to do with making the skin dewy, the fine lines disappear, the acne gone.