A flowering plant genus, Argania comprises just one species called Argania spinosa. Also called argan, the Argania spinosa tree is found growing abundantly in Sous valley, a calcareous semi-desert, located in the south-western regions of Morocco. This tree is also native to Tindouf in Algeria close to the western areas of the Mediterranean.
It has been seen that argan trees can grow up to a height of anything between 8 meters (24 feet) and 10 meters (40 feet) in favourable conditions and some of them may live up to 200 years. The root system of argan trees may grow to a significant depth, which aids in preventing soil erosion as well as restrain the Sahara Desert from encroaching newer areas.
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The flowers of argan tree are of hermaphrodite (have both male and female reproductive parts) by nature and they bloom either in May or June. Usually the blooms are greenish yellow, but sometimes they may also be white. The flowers give way to fruits, which are an oval-shaped berry. The fruit of argan tree is similar to a large olive in size and shape. The fruit encloses one nut and a couple of seeds.
Argan or Argania trees are densely branched forming canopies of the shape of an umbrella. The leaves are deep green and shaped like a lance. As mentioned earlier, the flowers have a greenish yellow color. The fruits are oval-shaped having a yellowish green color with a thick skin. The fruits enclose a milky pulp that encircles the nut with a hard shell.
These shrub-like trees are cultivated for their fruits that enclose large seeds. The seeds of argan enclose very valuable oil, which is similar to olive oil and its fat content is also equivalent to that of olive oil.
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The fruits of the trees growing in the wild are usually eaten by goats and other rummaging animals. After they consume the fruits, these animals excrete the hard-shelled seeds, which are collected by locals and, subsequently, pressed to obtain the esteemed argan oil. It is interesting to note that argan oil is often marketed at a price 10 times more than that of olive oil.
The argan tree has a vital role in the heritage of Morocco, particularly in the lives of people inhabiting the country's south-western regions. It is also important in the lives of people in the Souss-Massa-Draa region, the Atlas Mountains and Agadir. Earlier, some 10 years back, the argan tree played a vital role in the lives of people belonging to the Berber community. Till recently, the oil extracted from the argan seed kernel was among the most preferred elements of the health supplement producing industry. Argan trees are only found growing in the regions mentioned above and not in any other place across the globe. In fact, there have been several efforts to cultivate argan trees in other parts of the world in the past, but all of them failed to be fruitful.
Argan trees grow only in soils rich in chalk (calcium carbonate) and the climatic conditions prevailing in the Mediterranean region - the conditions available in its native land. This region does not receive sufficient rainfall - just about 200 mm to 300 mm annual rainfall. As argan trees can survive with very little rainfall, scanty rains in the region do not cause any problem for them. In fact, the roots of argan trees go very deep into the ground to obtain the moisture required by the shrubby trees.
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While a number of reports claim that the argan trees survive up to 150 years and more, there are others that assert that these trees usually have a life span of about 500 years. According to available documents, argan trees have been in existence since 25,000,000 years back and there was a time when these shrub-like trees had a dense growth in North America. Although less in number, argan trees are still found in North America and the place where they grow is called the "Argania Forest", which covers roughly 900,000 hectares. It is worth mentioning here that over one-third of this argan forest has disappeared during the last 50 years owing to clearing of the woodlands for firewood as well as make way for agricultural lands.
As the argan trees only grow in Morocco in the region of the Mediterranean, most people in other parts of the world are not familiar with this shrubby tree. Precisely speaking, argan only grow in an area of about 700,000 hectares to 800,000 hectares in southwest Morocco between the regions Agadir and Essaouira. However, as many as 21 million trees grow in this area and these trees have an important role in the environment as well as the food chain in the region. Unfortunately, the number of these trees is dwindling with the passing of each day.
Often, argan trees have trunks that are twisted and crooked, which enable goats in the region to climb up and eat the leaves as well as fruits of these trees.
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Till today, argan oil is mainly produced manually using traditional methods and, thus, it remains a lengthy process. The process involves cracking each nut, removing the kernels, roasting the kernels and then pressing them to extract the oil. According to a modest estimate, it takes as many as 20 hours work to produce just one litre of argan oil.
Compared to olive oil, argan oil has a somewhat darker hue with a shade of red. Apart from its use for cooking purposes, argan oil is said to possess a number of therapeutic properties and, hence, is used to treat various health conditions. This oil is said to be effective in improving circulation, lowering blood cholesterol levels and also fortifying the immune system of our body. Internationally, cosmetic manufacturers have shown some interest in this oil, which possesses emollient properties.
What remains of the argan seed kernels after extracting the oil is "amlou", a dense chocolate-hued paste. Berber households sweeten this paste and serve it in the form of a dip at breakfast with bread. The flavour of this paste is somewhat akin to that of peanut butter.
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The wood as well as the hard shells of argan nuts are also useful. The locals burn them as fuel for cooking. In addition, people in Essaouira make wooden inlaid boxes where the argan wood is used for ornamental purposes. Even the roots of this tree are useful in conserving the ecological balance. They grow very deep into the ground and thereby help in preventing soil erosion as well as the spread of the neighbouring deserts.
Moroccan households that extract argan oil for their personal use usually utilize it in the form of cooking oil. Since argan oil is very expensive - often costing ten times that of olive oil, people tend to use it in moderation. For instance, they use this oil for flavoring salads and not cooking. Adding a few drops of argan oil to couscous immediately before serving imparts a rich, nut-like aroma.
In the native regions of argan trees, production of argan oil continues to be a cottage industry - mainly handled by womenfolk. However, there is a general view that once the benefits of argan oil become well known, production of this oil can turn into a major industry and provide several employment to people in the region. In addition, widespread cultivation of argan trees can also help to improve the environment in the region.
If you travel between Agadir and Essouira in Morocco, you will notice many locals selling "argan oil" in bottles along the roadsides. However, you should be careful while purchasing these oils, as there is no guarantee of them being genuine. Since argan oil is very expensive, these local sellers have a tendency to adulterate the original oil by adding cheaper oils. On the other hand, some sellers pass olive oil as argan oil after coloring the olive oil with substances like paprika.
People in some regions of Morocco use argan as a substitute for olive - especially members of the Berber society use the tree as a source of oil, forage, timber as well as fuel. Interestingly, in the region near Essaouira, goats often climb the argan tree to feed on its leaves and fruits.
Argan oil is obtained by pressing the kernels of argan. This oil is only indigenous to the south-western region of Morocco. Argan oil is said to be hydrating oil that encloses essential fatty acids, counting omega oils oleic acid and linoleic acid, and tocopherol (a form of vitamin E), a very potent antioxidant. The elements contained by argan oil work to soften the skin, attract moisture as well as keep the skin hydrated. In addition, this oil also possesses powerful anti-inflammatory attributes. In fact, argan oil is used in a number of cosmetics as well as personal care products in the form of an emollient. It is a common ingredient of many facial moisturizers, lipsticks, sunscreens, eye creams, mascaras and blush.
You can also use argan oil individually to treat acne, scars, keep the skin wrinkle-free, as a moisturizer to hydrate the face and body and also in the form of a cuticle moisturizer. In addition, it can be used for anti-frizz hair therapy and treat stretch marks.
Argan can be used internally as well as externally. This herb offers multiple health benefits and is used to treat a number of health conditions, including skincare, cardiovascular diseases, and high blood pressure (hypertension). Argan oil is used widely for its analgesic, anti-inflammatory as well as cholesterol lowering properties. The oil is obtained from the argan seed kernel. Before extracting the oil, argan seeds are roasted with a view to get rid of saponins contained by them. Argan nut has an extremely bitter flavour, but the purified oil is sweet to taste, much like walnut oil. Argan oil is often used to add essence to various foods. In addition, this oil also has use in soap manufacturing and is used to manufacture a hard yellow-hued soap.
This oil is used in various foods, employed for therapeutic purposes and also used in the form of an ingredient in cosmetics and skin care products. The roasted and ground kernels of argan are also used as fodder for cattle after pressing them to make cakes when the oil has been extracted from them. In fact, goats as well as other livestock eat the leaves and fruits of this tree.
Apart from therapeutic uses, argan oil is also used for culinary purposes. This vegetable oil is widely used as an ingredient in couscous and tajines. Recently, top chefs introduced argan oil to European cuisine and currently it is employed as the base for several different types of seasonings. In addition, argan oil can also be used in fish and meat preparations.
The argan tree is native to south-western regions of Morocco and likes to grow in full sunlight. It is very drought resilient. In addition, the tree can adjust very well to extreme heat as well as inferior quality soils.
These trees can thrive even with very little water - surviving on just an annual rainfall of 4 inches to 12 inches. Moreover, argan trees possess the aptitude to grow in an assortment of soil conditions, including soils having very poor nutrient content. They can flourish even in warm and partially dry conditions.
Argan trees are propagated by their seeds, which takes a long time to germinate. In fact, these seeds can also prove to be difficult to sprout. As the coating of argan seeds is very tough, they need to be soaked in warm water for some time before they are sown. Ideally, they should be soaked in room temperature in water having a temperature of anything between 90°F and 100°F for about two to four days before sowing. Some growers advise that you soak the argan seeds in moist towels kept warm at room temperature. They claim that this will help to germinate the seeds with less difficulty.
Alternatively, you can also sow the argan seeds in small pots or containers in moist and well-drained soils at a depth of about 1 inch. If you are germinating the seeds in this technique, ensure that the soil in the container is watered regularly. However, be careful not to water the soil excessively so that it becomes soggy. Usually, it may take anything between many weeks to some months for the argan seeds to germinate.
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