When the drought-ridden meadows of Morocco fail to satiate its native goats, the land-based animals look upwards for sources of sustenance—way up to the branches of the Argan tree. The trees’ water-filled leaves and olive-like fruit often tempt the goats into climbing the thorny evergreens. In an unorthodox spectacle, the goats hoist themselves up the trees’ twisted trunks, perch atop the branches like birds, and ingest the trees’ fruit and water.1
Argans (Argania spinosa L., Sapotaceae) have been enticing goats for centuries. The tree is a relic species of the Tertiary Period (which took place about 65 to 1.6 million years ago).2 Throughout history, the goats’ gravity-defying behavior has indirectly provided a service to Moroccan locals. After eating the Argan fruit whole, goats spit up or excrete its pits, much to the delight of Berber farmers, who gather the pits for industrial purposes. Undigested argan pits can be split to extract bitter internal kernels, which farmers grind and press to make nutty oils used for cooking or cosmetics. But the tree’s profitable possibilities go beyond these oils, as Argans have also traditionally been used for purposes ranging from timber, firewood, and charcoal to ornaments, soap, and medicine.3
Argan trees, also known as Moroccan ironwoods,3 grow primarily between Essaouira and Agadir in Southwest Morocco.1 They can survive heat, drought, and poor soil, making them suitably adapted for harsh African environments. The trees grow up to 10 meters high and typically live up to 200 years.2 But despite the adaptability of Argan trees, current overgrazing by goats and commercial overuse of its wood has reduced the number of surviving trees to 50% of what it was 50 years ago, making its future uncertain.
Although locals often refer to the Argan tree as “The Tree of Life,” their poor treatment of the tree’s environment has largely contributed to its steady demise.3 Increasing amounts of people with large domesticated grazing herds continue to move into the area, resulting in overgrazing of the fragile ecosystem. Even worse, the tree has never been germinated from seed or transplanted from cuttings on a wide scale.2 Unsustainable collections of firewood, timber, and fruit have also caused a sharp decline in the tree’s population, as has the abandonment of traditional land management in favor of more modern agricultural practices like plowing and irrigated crops. Global warming and the disappearance of spiny “nurse” plants such as Rhus pentaphylla Jacq., Anacardiaceae and Ziziphus spp., Rhamnaceae, which protected Argan tree seedlings, could also be culprits.3
To combat the demise of the Argan tree, several entities have created an alliance to raise awareness of its inherent value. Groups like UNESCO, Prince Albert II of Monaco, and Cooperative Amal, the country’s first oil cooperative, are discouraging locals from chopping down the tree for firewood and encouraging more careful goat grazing.2 UNESCO has declared a 10,000-square-mile patch of land between the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains as a “biosphere reserve,” providing money to manage the preservation of the trees. To halt overgrazing, Cooperative Amal led a campaign to ban grazing in the trees from May to August, when the fruit ripens and eventually falls to the ground. So far the ban has left enough fruit on the ground to supply the growing number of oil cooperatives while still protecting the trees.2
The alliance has also created a global market for Argan oil, which is one of the rarest and most expensive oils in the world.3 Monaco’s Prince Albert II has sponsored cooperatives to encourage the oil’s export, while worldwide chefs and society matrons are praising the culinary qualities of the oil and its anti-aging effect on skin.2 To make Argan oil, each nut has to be cracked open to remove the kernels, so making one liter of oil can take up to 20 hours of work.1 The edible hazelnut-like oil is used in a Berber breakfast condiment called amlou while the cosmetic oil, rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids, is used for massage, facials, aftershave lotion for men, hair conditioning, and nail fortifying.2,4 The oil sells for over $25 for an 8.45 oz bottle in some European and American gourmet food shops.2,5
By increasing the economy and providing jobs to locals, the Argan tree remains a necessary economic asset to Moroccans, who in turn fight to keep their “Tree of Life” alive and thriving.
1. Argan: the Tree of Life. Al-bab Web site. Available at: http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/env/argan.htm. Accessed August 4, 2006.
2. Smith C. Hungry goats atop a tree, doing their bit for gourmands. The New York Times. 2005; 300:A4.
3. The Moroccan Argan Tree. The Tree.org Web site. Available at: http://www.the-tree.org.uk/SpecialBranch/InTree/goats.htm. Accessed August 4, 2006.
4. Morse K. Ardent for Argan. Saudi Aramco World. 2004;55:1-5.
5. Natural Argan Oil from Morocco. Earthy Delights Web site. Available at: http://www.earthy.com/Natural_Argan_Oil_from_Morocco_C54.cfm. Accessed August 10, 2006.