Argan trees have been around for millions of years. Today, they grow only on a narrow strip of semi-desert between Morocco’s Atlantic coast and the Atlas Mountains. Here, they form the backbone of a complex and fragile ecosystem that Moroccans are learning to leverage and harvest with respect.
For local communities, argan oil is an important source of income and food (the oil is delicious and rich with health benefits). It’s also a major source of empowerment for women in an otherwise male-dominant culture. When it comes to argan oil, there’s a lot more than beautiful skin at stake.
The argan ecosystem represents the last natural barrier against the Sahara desert in the southwest. Its protection is a matter of life or death for the flora and fauna of this region—including the people who have lived here for millennia.
Argan trees themselves are scruffy and squat, with gnarled trunks twisted into braids by the unrelenting winds. Undisturbed, they can live for 200 years.
Argan trees are remarkably drought-resistant, going dormant when necessary and then bursting alive with leaves when water eventually returns. (It’s not uncommon to see one tree thriving alongside another that appears dead. Locals describe them as having quirky personalities.)
When they do come alive, they sprout small, yellow-green leaves from their thorny branches. These leaves produce yellow flowers and then small ovoid fruit that take a full year to mature.
Inside the fruit, beneath the bitter peel and pulp, is a hard, shiny nut—almond-like in shape and size. This nut can, with skill and force, be cracked open to reveal between one and three small seeds. These seeds are the source of the famously rich and extraordinary argan oil.
The leaves and fruit are also an important source of food for camels, goats, sheep, and other animals.
While many argan orchards are privately owned, large swaths of state-owned argan trees in the countryside are freely harvested by local communities.
From fruit to nut to seed to oil
A fully mature argan fruit. It emerges from the argan tree’s yellow flowers in the spring and ripens over the course of a year.
The fruit is typically ready to harvest in June or July and falls to the ground when fully ripe—unless a goat or camel gets to it first.
Shaking or hitting the argan tree to encourage the fruit to drop causes an increase in acidity in the oil—part of the plant’s defense mechanism—so it’s important to let nature take its course.
Ripened fruit is collected and dried in the open air until it reaches this brown, shriveled stage.
The leathery pulp is then stripped off, exposing the nut inside. This is typically done by hand, even in large-scale commercial production.
The fruit’s flesh is fragrant, with an astringent, unpleasant taste. The local livestock don’t seem to mind.
The argan nut is a thick, hard covering that protects the seeds inside—not unlike an olive or peach pit.
Its two halves are held together by a tough membrane, and it takes considerable effort to crack open the nut without damaging the seeds inside.
As with fruit harvesting, care must be taken not to shock the seeds, which can damage the oil they contain. To extract top-quality oil, this step must be done by hand.
A cracked argan nut. Note the clean separation of the two halves and the abrasions from the stone used to open it.
The two seeds found in this nut are rich with argan oil and ready to be extracted.
Argan oil is extracted by a hand-operated stone mill or with the help of a commercial cold-pressing extractor, which carefully applies pressure without heat to preserve the oil’s nutrients.
Despite a steadily growing global market for argan products—for luxury cosmetics and culinary use—argan trees grow only in Morocco. They’re finicky, and the process of extracting their oil is complicated and requires intensive manual labor.
This has an important impact not just on the local economy, but also on the empowerment and wellbeing of local women.
In Morocco, where the culture is still heavily male-dominant and societal roles are strictly codified, it’s women who have traditionally done the work of producing argan oil at home for the family’s use.
Increased demand from outside the community has led to the formation of women-run cooperatives that produce and sell argan products—one of very few opportunities women have to earn income outside of the home.
As international markets continue to grow, women argan producers earn a sustainable income, which leads to the kind of social change that improves quality of life, increases literacy rates, and expands opportunities for current and future generations.
Even larger commercial producers continue to employ local workers—the production process can’t be easily mechanized—and the best ones ensure comfortable and social work environments, meals, and daycare for children.
Perhaps these are argan oil’s greatest benefits.