Argan oil is derived from the argan tree (Argania spinosa), a UNESCO-protected tree endemic to Morocco. It reaches 8–10 metres high and lives for up to 200 years. It grows in semi-arid soil and its deep root system helps protect against soil erosion and the advance of the Sahara Desert. Oil from the argan tree is one of the rarest oils in the world.
Argan trees are thorny with gnarled trunks. The leaves are 2–4 cm long. The flowers have pale yellow-green petals. Flowering is in April. The fruit is 2–4 cm long with a thick peel surrounding a sweet-smelling layer of pulpy pericarp. This covers a very hard seed, which contains usually one, but occasionally two or three, oil-rich kernels. The fruit ripens in June or July.
Traditionally, women from the Berber tribe produce the oil. In times past, goats were sent up the trees to eat the fruit and the women would then gather the undigested seeds from the goat excrement. The seeds would then be cracked and the kernels pressed to produce the oil. Argan oil used in cosmetic and culinary products today has most likely been harvested directly from the tree without the intervention of a goat!
Culinary argan oil is produced by lightly toasting the kernels before pressing. Cosmetic grade argan oil is cold-pressed without toasting.
Argan oil contains tocopherols (vitamin E), phenols, carotenes, squalene, and 80% unsaturated fatty acids.
Argan oil production today supports some 2.2 million people in the main argan oil producing region of Morocco (the Arganeraie) with much of the oil controlled by women’s co-operatives. It has had a major socio-economic impact on Moroccan women.