If you travel to the south of Morocco, you’re likely to see some strange trees growing there. Or rather, some strange tree inhabitants. The trees are argan, and their unlikely companions are goats.

Because food in this region is scarce, the goats have adapted to climb the argan trees for their bright yellow, olive-sized fruit. After the goats have digested the fruit, they expel pits which contain kernels that are ground to produce a highly valuable, nutty argan oil.

Argan trees and first ploughing for spring planting

A plantation of argans, photo from Wikipedia Commons

These ancient trees date back to the earth’s Tertiary Period, 1.6 million years ago. They live to be around 150-200 years old, and grow in few other places in the world. Unfortunately, overgrazing by goats and chopping by local people for firewood has cut the number of argan trees to half of what it was 50 years ago. But their preservation is now underway, thanks to the 10,000-square-mile UNESCO-protected Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve, located between the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains.

Argane oil production

Berber women producing argan oil in the traditional method, photo from Wikipedia Commons

The Berber people have had a longstanding relationship with argan trees, using them for animal feed, oil, timber and fuel. Today, argan oil is still extracted by Berber women through traditional methods, and the majority of oil sold commercially is produced by the UCFA (Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie) women’s collective. This and other collectives provide healthcare, education and other forms of vital support to the community. They also plant new argan trees to ensure continued economic growth and development for the Berber people.

On a large production scale, the almond-shaped argan kernels are collected not from goats, but during May-August, when there is a ban on grazing. Exported oil is pressed using sanitary, modern methods. When argan seeds are roasted, the oil has a number of culinary purposes. It is used for dipping bread, drizzling over couscous, and dressing salads, meat and fish. Unroasted oil, rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids, is a valuable cosmetic. It is used to make massage oil and anti-aging cosmetics as well as treat skin diseases.

Sources: Youtube User Scarlett Owen, Wikipedia, New York Times