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BOTANICAL ENCOUNTERS: The Argan Tree

By Ida K. Rigby, for Let’s Talk Plants! February 2024.



The Argan Tree


Let’s begin with a few photos to transport ourselves to Morocco.



Our subject, the argan tree, Argania spinosa, Sideroxylon spinosum, is central to life in the rural Berber communities of southwestern Morocco. Its name, argan, is derived from its name in the Berber language, Shilha. Historically its range may have been wider, but now it only grows in southwestern Morocco between Essauaria and Agadir and in a small area in Algeria.


Some sources suggest that the argan tree originated in the Tertiary Period and occupied much of north Africa. A study published on the Nature website (nature.com) however, argues that pollen records suggest that the tree first grew in more limited areas during the late Pliocene and early Quaternary. Archaeobotanical studies document argan trees in association with human occupied sites (charred wood and seed shells) during the medieval Almohad empire (1147-1269). The first written reference was in Ibn Al Baytor’s botanical encyclopedia (1219).


Berber farmers have long grown wheat, barley and lentils in the spaces between argan trees. Archaeologists theorize that the spread of the argan tree was caused by humans and their goats, making the tree neither wild nor domesticated. So, in its recent history it is inseparable from goats.



“In areas close to houses and in cultivated fields argan trees are protected and branches are cut only when hindering the passage of inhabitants, to develop the height of the tree, to increase fruit production or to enable ploughing with mules or facilitate fallen fruit gathering.”  (nature.com

Berbers call the gnarled, thorny argan tree the “tree of life,” symbolizing eternity and resistance. It can live over two hundred years. The ripening fruit looks like a large, green olive.



For centuries Berbers have used argan oil for cooking, cosmetics and medicines and argan wood for fuel, construction, utensils, tools and making charcoal. The seeds’ shells are burned for fuel. Argan oil is used on couscous dishes and to make a paste with almonds and honey enjoyed as a breakfast dipping sauce for bread. Bees nesting in the trees produce honey. Traditionally Berber women used the oil on their hair and skin. Today cosmetics firms celebrate the oil’s Vitamins A and E, antioxidants and fatty acids. (See “natural” cosmetics websites such as Dr. Hauschka’s.) Traditional Berber medicinal uses include curing chicken pox and treating blood circulation disorders. (University of Arizona. app.cals.Arizona.edu)

The argan tree plays an important role in sustaining cultural practices.


Rural women are the bearers of traditional knowledge about how to prepare argan oil, which is based on laborious handwork. Women remove the pulp, which is saved for animal fodder, and then crack the shell to release the one or two kernels. The nuts are extremely hard and have to be cracked carefully with stones so as not to damage the kernels. Rough handling creates an off taste in the oil. A handmade stone mill is used to extract the oil from lightly roasted nuts. The preparation of argan oil has always been a sociable group activity. The tradition continues in modern day women’s cooperatives, ...



... which allow Berber women to work outside of the home, earn income and attend literacy classes. As a result, they can support their children’s and grandchildren’s schooling. In addition, income from the argan trade has cut down on the migration from rural to urban areas. Although much oil now is cold pressed (heat damages the oil) to meet the worldwide demand, small women’s coops still play a significant part in the process.


There are also downsides to the worldwide demand for argan oil. It has created an unsustainable demand on the trees. Increased family income is often used to purchase more goats. Large goat herds then eat the newly sprouting argan trees and prevent regeneration of the forest. Urban encroachment on the forests also threatens their existence.



These photos show a young argan tree beside our lodge and a view of the depleted argan forest on the hillside below us. An expanding town lies in the middle distance, and a still healthy argan forest is in the distance.


As a quick aside, the owner of our lodge is interested in sustainable ecotourism and has converted one side of his hill into a natural sewage water treatment system, which passes all of the lodge’s sewage through a series of terraced plantings to filter the water and create a clean fishpond at its base.



His neighbor had goats, and somehow the argan trees on the other (our) side of the fence seemed more appealing to them.



Goats enjoy the ripening and ripe pulp surrounding the nuts. The fruit ripens and turns brown in June and July. Traditionally a few weeks before the harvest the village council would declare the argan forest “agdal” meaning it was off limits to livestock and humans.


Today farmers still fence off the trees so that goats do not eat the ripe nuts. Some farmers beat the trees to encourage nearly ripe nuts to fall, but they are inferior in quality. In defense trees produce bitter tasting nuts. Fallen, tree ripened nuts are preferred for their flavor.


Goats have long assisted in the harvest of argan nuts. Seeking ripened and ripening fruit, the nimble creatures climbed into argan trees to eat the fruit and nibble on the leaves. At some point farmers began to take advantage of this natural behavior and encouraged their goats to climb the often 30-foot trees to harvest nuts from inaccessible branches. Goats then spit out the larger kernels while ruminating or pooped out the smaller ones. Farmers gathered these kernels. Goat processed seeds have a “goaty” flavor, and therefore are not used in industrial oils.


Some enterprising herders take advantage of the highways frequented by tourists and encourage their goats to climb fruiting trees near these tourist routes. With great excitement we spied one such herd; of course, we stopped and watched the goats’ dexterous maneuvers.



 Note a hoof deftly poised on a branch stub.





The goats carefully avoid the tough thorns as they nibble.



Overgrazing, over harvesting, agriculture, climate change and urban encroachment endanger the argan forests. They decreased by 44.5% between 1070 and 2007. (un.org)


In addition to limiting access during certain times, which can encourage the natural regeneration of the forest, efforts are being made to develop argan trees genetically appropriate for nursery propagation and orchards. Argan cultivation is also encouraging research into sustainable agricultural practices, such as the use of mycorrhizal fungi and modern drip irrigation.


The United Nations has recognized the argan tree as a special species: In 1988...

“… UNESCO designated the endemic argan production areas as the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve."

In 2014,

“...practices and know-how concerning the argan tree were inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,”

and in 2021...

“...the United Nations General Assembly . . . proclaimed 10 May the International Day of Argania.”

It is celebrated annually in Morocco, at the UN Headquarters in New York and around the world with sustainable agriculture seminars focusing on the argan tree. The theme for 2023 was ...

“Local Socioeconomic Development and Sustainability of the Argan Ecosystem” ...

...to recognize the importance of empowering local communities to take an active role in the management and conservation of their natural resources. The UN hopes that foregrounding the agroforestry techniques of farming in argan forests will serve as a model for promoting food security in arid areas around the world. (un.org)


As another aside, for those of you interested in forms of sustainable agriculture I am including photos of interplanting in another ecosystem in Morocco, date palm oases.



 These gardens use available ground water for canals to irrigate date palms interspersed with fruit trees such as figs and plots of corn, legumes and greens.


The UN website discussion of the argan tree foregrounds its role in mitigating climate change.

“The argan tree plays a vital role in carbon sequestration . . . The tree's large canopy and dense foliage provide shade and promote moisture retention, creating a microclimate that supports the growth of other plant species.” (un.org

In addition to affording lessons in sustainable agriculture, the argan tree holds back desertification because of its heat tolerance (up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit) and its deep roots that seek water and stabilize the arid, calciferous soil. Jonathan Drori calls the argan forest a “last bastion against the Sahara.” (Around the World in 80 Trees, p.45)

 

Ida Rigby is a past SDHS Board member and Garden Tour Coordinator. She has gardened in Poway since l992 and emphasizes plants from the northern and southern Mediterranean latitudes.

Her garden received the San Diego Home/Garden Magazine Best Homeowner Design and Grand Prize in their Garden of the Year contest in l998. Her travels focus on natural history.

 

Yorumlar


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