The argan tree is a unique plant in many ways. Up to 12 meters high are the picturesque gnarled trees. Argania spinosa, also known for example as Elaeodendron argan or Eisenholzbaum, belong to the genus Argania, these in turn to the family Sapotaceae from the order of the heather plants.
Today, the argan tree thrives exclusively in southern Morocco and here at altitudes of 1,300 meters. Due to its very limited distribution area, every single tree belongs to a local family, which watches over it and has a right to use fruit and wood. The owner of all argan trees in Morocco is the state.
The origin of the argan tree
The origin of the argan tree can be dated back at least 80 million years. He is as a species older than the great mountains of the earth, Himalayas, Alps, Andes, Rocky Mountains. In addition, he is older than many mammal species that inhabit the earth today, and was probably a contemporary of the last great dinosaurs. Its origins lie in an era in which the climate was mostly tropical warm up to the Poles. In the Tertiary, the period from 65 to 2.6 million years before our era, a massive climate change took place. Even at this time, the argan tree was probably a component of all forests around the present-day Mediterranean and in the area of North Africa. In the course of the Tertiary, plant and animal life developed into the forms known today.
Around 1930, argan trees flourished in Algeria, Mauritania and southern Morocco in several locations. Today, the distribution area is limited to just over 820,000 hectares – that is about 8,000 square kilometers – today a biosphere reserve of UNESCO in southwest Morocco, the “Arganeraie” near the city of Agadir, and between Marakesh and the places Essaouira and Ounagha, where several cooperatives have been producing argan oil.
The argan tree is a blessing for its current range: its water and nutrient requirements are minimal. It clings tenaciously to sandy and rocky, strongly mineral soil, endures heat and long periods of drought and lets other plants thrive in its shadow – a small bulwark against the steady advance of the desert. The trees grow ten to twelve meters high. With a tree canopy of 20 to 70 meters, they are spreading, bushy and the branches reach down to the ground. The intense sun and high temperatures seem to harm them, the roots reach down to 30 meters deep. If it is too dry, the tree switches to the pure “survival mode”. If it rains adequately, it produces blossoms and fruits every two years: From 30 kilograms of fruit can win a liter of argan oil. This sparse yield explains the exclusivity of this product. In the country of origin, argan oil is used both as a food and as a medical home remedy and for cosmetic purposes.
The Amazigh, Berber, about two million people, resident in the distribution area of the argan tree, are economically highly dependent on the yield: it is said that about ten argan trees can feed a human. The locals use the fallen wood and use the fruits to extract the argan oil. Regardless of the spines, the leaves and fruits serve as food for the goats and dromedaries.
Size, life and fruit yield
The trees are between 150 and 400 years old and are most productive between 50 and 60 years, bearing up to 40 kilograms of fruit. The tree makes good use of good years with sufficient rainfall: From the age of five, it bears flowers that drift over time or mature into argan nuts over the entire year. The harvest time is between May and September.
Although it is possible with some patience to grow a small plant from a core of argan nut, but except at their home location has never been able to bring the trees to their full maturity, size and fertility. Trials of argan cultures launched in Israel and Saudi Arabia failed.
One theory is that the kernels would have to go through the digestive tract of goat or dromedary before they can germinate. But this way can be replaced by soaking for several days in uniformly lukewarm water.
In the market, viable argan seeds and perennial seedlings are available – however, they thrive in the Central European climate only as ornamentals and there is no chance that they develop to maturity.
Today, the argan tree populations are protected in a biosphere reserve and their use is carefully monitored. Long before the 90s, entire forests were cut down in favor of other agricultural products. While the trees are perfectly adapted to the extremely hot, dry climate, other crops do not provide a reasonable yield. The success failed due to the lack of water and the heat, the clearing only contributed to a general deterioration of living conditions. Luckily, these facts ended the grubbing up in good time.
The fruit of the argan tree: the argan nut
Shaped like an olive, only slightly larger and yellowish in color, the argan nut contains two to three oily nuclei. The Moroccan goats tend to climb the trees and nibble leaves and fruits here, but the kernels or nuts excrete them. In the past these kernels were collected and processed practically from the remains of the goats, today the recovery is somewhat more direct. However, the Berber women are not allowed to pick the fruits, they must only collect them so as not to damage the trees.
For human consumption, the fruit is unsuitable because it tastes extremely bitter. Their high protein and glucose content makes them a kind of concentrated feed for animals.
With the onset of the autumn rains in October, new leaves sprout and the small fruits from the previous year gradually ripen. At the same time, flowers thrive on the annual shoots. New shoots form around January, and in February the tree is literally littered with flowers. During the hot, dry summer season, the newly developed argan fruits from the flowers stop growing, but the previous year’s fruits mature.
The argan tree, goats – and other animals
The layman can also immediately distinguish argan from olive trees when driving by. The reason is the goats, which prefer to climb around in the tops of the argan trees, eat foliage and the wrapping of fruits. Dromedaries with their long legs and necks also reach well the leaves and fruits. An endemic species, the Atlas Squirrel, also seems to play a mysterious and important role in the life of the Argan trees.
Everywhere in the Mediterranean there is a centuries-old problem: the natural growth of trees has been systematically cut down. What remained was a bushy secondary vegetation adapted to barren soil, great heat and lack of water, which is called macchia, depending on the region. Remaining trees were pruned by the local people in order to obtain cattle feed, there seems to be no offspring. Goats and sheep pluck grass down to the roots, soil erosion progresses, and the waning vegetation again has a negative impact on the climate.
The argan tree braces itself against such attacks with numerous thorns – which do not keep the goats and dromedaries however. They eat both the leaves and the nutrient-rich fruits that are too hard and too bitter for human consumption.
Some biologists see this critically. The fact is that the animals – goat, dromedary and atlas – consume the argan nut, secrete the seeds and thus contribute to a certain extent to the natural proliferation of the argan trees. Locals even believe that the argans first have to go through the goat’s digestive tract before they can germinate. However, the domesticated goats represent a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of the argan trees – the trees managed over millions of years very well without the climbing ruminants. Today it is not that the argan trees, like many other plants, are destroyed by grazing in extremely hot, dry areas, but the goats and dromedaries benefit much more from the trees than the other way around.
On the other hand, the association with the Atlas granules is an example of a genuine, ancient and effective symbiosis: one donates food, the other guarantees the survival of the species.
Like the European squirrels, the atolls dig for food hiding places where they deposit the argan nuts – and forget to forget a part of them. Accordingly, argan trees are often found in the most inaccessible mountain ravines.
Unlike the squirrel, the Atlas live in groups and colonies in crevices. So the cute, gray-brown striped little guys put up whole gardener battalions, which actually contribute to the preservation of the argan forests.
Whether the goats and dromedaries fulfill this task and ensure the Argan offspring by leaving the cores, is possible, but so far has not yet been conclusively documented. The fact is that the deforestation of the earth’s drying zones is massively advancing. For this reason too, the existence of the argan tree in one of the hottest, driest parts of the world is so important.
The overuse of the argan tree
Overuse is actually a problem for the stocks. The approximately 20 million argan trees face 800 million olive trees. Strong climatic changes, but also the thousands of years of use of land by humans through clearing and grazing came to the original forest stock to body. In the Mediterranean and Atlantic area, there were once lush forests, of which only remains are today. Accordingly, the groundwater level is falling, the climate is constantly changing and soil erosion is spreading, much to the detriment of the livelihood of humans and animals.
Since the 1990s, various projects have been underway to research the careful use of argan forests while ensuring their continued existence. The production and marketing of argan oil by the Amazigh women will be upgraded and supported. The aim is to use this unique resource, which is so important to the people of the region, without destroying it in the long term.
Do goats play a role in the production of argan oil?
A direct role in the production of argan oil can not be attributed to goats. They are more of a growth barrier to trees, as are people who shed short-sighted branches to make fires, thereby reducing active biomass.
Apparently, the inhabitants of the Argan tree region used to gather the seeds of the trees from the goat’s dung and squeezed them for oil production. Today, the argan nuts are harvested directly or, more correctly, collected: still, the fruit is used as animal feed and for this purpose solved by hand or with machines from the core. The fruits may not be harvested directly from the tree, only collected. Because the fruits do not develop or mature at the same time throughout the vegetation period after flowering, picking up is the most effective and gentle method.
Is it possible to buy an argan tree in US?
The bizarre gnarled argan tree is a decorative plant, even if it does not reach maturity or fruit in our latitudes. It is sensitive to frost and drafts, otherwise it can grow well in a sheltered position. A planter makes it easier to move the tree into a sheltered room before the onset of the cold period.
In the specialized trade, interested parties can actually buy an argan tree – either as a seed for self-germination, or as a three-year-old seedling.
Patients who buy the seeds need patience: for 12 to 24 hours, the seeds must swell in warm water. Then they should be placed in shallow depth (maximum one centimeter) in cactus soil. Cactus clay is permeable to air and water, sandy and has a high mineral content. Constant heat and sufficient light decide on the success of prosperity. Instead of watering the plant, it is sufficient to spray the potting soil. Too much moisture causes the roots to rot quickly. Dry heating air does not hurt. So far, however, there are hardly any empirical values.