Some facts about the Argan Tree
The "Tree of Life"

The Argan Tree (Argania spinosa), also known as Morocco Ironwood, is quite a thorny evergreen tree that grows up to 10m high. Its life span is said to be anywhere from 125 to 450 years and the tree may not come into full production until it is 40-60 years old. Newly planted groves are not just a valuable gift to the next generation, but they will help in the battle against encroaching desertification right now. The trees can cope with low rainfall and only needs 100 to 200 ml (4 to 8 in).
It has the ability to be dormant in drier times and will regenerate when the rains come again. It will also regenerate after being coppiced. Coppicing is the cutting down of trees in its relative dormant season once in a while. If this coppicing is done with sufficient knowledge of species and local conditions, the tree will respond by growing new shoots from its roots.
Botanically, Argan is a relic species from the Tertiary Age, the only member of the tropical Sapotaceae family occurring north of the Sahara and the single species of the genus Argania. The exact location of this remarkable tree is in the Souss Plain, the Anti-Atlas and the High Atlas Mountains of southwestern Morocco up to an elevation of 1500m or 4920 ft.

The Berber Tree of Life

Argania spinosais is locally known, by the Berber people, as The Tree Of Life, because it helps to make life possible for many creatures in the semi-arid desert of south Morocco. Its roots travel deep to find water and help to bind the soil. Tree root systems also facilitate water infiltration and aquifer replenishment.
Here are some of the many ways in which the tree has been used by traditionally by the nomadic Berber tribes and other locals:

  • Timber for building materials and furniture making. The wood of the tree is excellent and virtually impervious to insect attack.

  • Firewood: The wood and nut-shells are used as firewood for cooking.

  • Ornament: The wood is also used decoratively in some of the inlaid boxes which are a craft form in the district and which are these days often produced for tourists.

  • Charcoal:  both for cooking and in the past also for use by craftspeople such as smiths.

  • Animal fodder: Goats, camels and sheep can all eat the fruit and the leaves, but horses and mules cannot consume it for some reason. The trees are covered with vicious spines, which makes it hard for people to gather the fruits unless it is beaten off the branches with a stick. However, the spines do not deter the goats who love the fruits. Traditionally people would recover the hard nuts contained within the fruit from the animal dung. These nuts have an extremely hard shell, which would be broken by hitting the nut with a stone. This hard labour, done by woman, will produce one, two or three almond-shaped kernels. These contain 50% oil, which would be extracted in a press ususally powered by animals.  The pressed cake that remains after the oil is makes a useful cattle food.

  • Argan Oil: The seed kernels produces a heavy oil, which is amber to orange-coloured and has multiple uses.
    The production of a litre of this oil is very labour intensive and is said to take at least 1½ days. Merely to break open sufficient  kernels with a stone takes about 12 hours!
    In the past it was mostly country folk who would use this home-made oil. It was used as a substitute for olive oil and other fats. It has a lovely nutty flavour. A few drops stirred into couscous, the local staple grain, add a different dimension to this dish. It was also used as a cooking oil and it is excellent in salads.

  • Amlou paste: One of the uses of the residue from the kernels after oil extraction is a thick chocolate-coloured paste called "amlou" which is sweetened with honey and served as a dip for bread at breakfast time in Berber households.

  • Lamp fuel: The second pressings of the oil were a useful source of fuel to make a light in dark nights.

  • Cosmetics and soap: Second pressing of the oil were also used in the manufacture of homemade soap and cosmetics. The skin products made from the oil soften the skin and help to reduce wrinkles by restoring the skin's water lipid layer.

  • Medicine: Traditionally the oil was used as a protective agent in diseases of the liver and blood circulation, such as high cholesterol and arteriosclerosis. It is an excellent tonic and some say it has aphrodisiac qualities. It will generally strengthen the body’s natural defenses. It has now been scientifically established that Argan oil has almost twice as much vitamin E as olive oil and is rich in anti-oxidants. It is 80% unsaturated, containing eight essential fatty acids including 34-36% linoleic acid, which cannot be made in the body and must therefore be obtained from the diet. Argan oil also contains rare plant sterols not found in other oils, which have soothing anti-inflammatory properties, beneficial for arthritic or rheumatic conditions. The essential fatty acids affect cell fluidity, help to prevent loss of moisture from the skin, and linings of the nose, lungs, digestive system, and brain. They also play a part in the formation of prostaglandins, of which some reduce pain and swelling, while others help blood circulation.

Women's cooperatives are taking a lead

It is hoped that the commercialization of the health-giving argan oil (which is the most expensive oil in the world) and other products of the tree will be an incentive to local people to invest time and energy in the proper maintenance and renewed expansion of the Argon Forest. 
Nowadays the goats are often kept out by forestry wardens until after the harvest of the fruit and the nuts are extracted by machines. The extracted kernel is roasted and ground, then water is added to the crushed seeds. Rinsing subsequently separates the floating oil from the water - about 100 kilograms of seeds are needed for just 1 to 2 k (2.2 to 4.4 lb) of exquisite oil - the rarest edible oil in the world.

Cooperatives of local women are playing the major role in the establishment of nurseries and the setting up of businesses to produce and market various commodities. 

History

The Argan tree is little known outside Morocco, and many Moroccans themselves have never heard of it because it grows only in the south-west of the country - roughly between Essaouira and Agadir, in an area covering 700,000-800,000 hectares. But within the area where the argan grows there are about 21 million trees which play a vital role in the food chain and the environment, though their numbers are declining.

The tree, which is thorny and can reach heights of 8-10 metres, probably originated in Argana, a village north-east of Agadir (off Route 40). It lives longer than the olive and requires no cultivation.

The trunk of the argan is often twisted and gnarled, allowing goats to clamber along its branches and feed on the leaves and fruit.

The fruit has a green, fleshy exterior like an olive, but larger and rounder. Inside, there is a nut with an extremely hard shell, which in turn contains one, two or three almond-shaped kernels.

When goats eat the fruit, the fleshy part is digested but the nut, because of its hard shell, is excreted. Later, the nuts are collected by farmers to produce oil.

The production of argan oil, which is still mostly done by traditional methods, is a lengthy process. Each nut has to be cracked open to remove the kernels, and it is said that producing one litre of oil takes 20 hours' work.

Argan oil is slightly darker than olive oil, with a reddish tinge. It can be used for cooking and is claimed to have various medicinal properties, such as lowering cholesterol levels, stimulating circulation and strengthening the body’s natural defences. Internationally, there is some interest in its possible cosmetic uses.

The residue from the kernels after oil extraction is a thick chocolate-coloured paste called "amlou" which is sweetened and served as a dip for bread at breakfast time in Berber households. It flavour is similar to that of peanut butter.

The wood and nut-shells of the argan tree are burned for cooking; the wood is also used decoratively in some of the inlaid boxes which are made in Essaouira. The roots of the argan tree grow deep in search of water, helping to bind the soil and prevent erosion.

Households that make their own argan oil tend to use if for general cooking. Because it is expensive to buy, others may use it more sparingly - flavouring salads, for example. A few drops stirred into couscous just before serving give it a rich, nutty aroma.

Argan production is still basically a cottage industry, managed largely by women. But many people believe that if the oil became better known it could provide more employment in the region as well as enhancing the environment.

UNESCO declared an 800,000-hectare area in southwest Morocco between Essaouira and Agadir a biosphere reserve because it is the only place in the world where argans grow.