Exploring Morocco’s economically important Argania spinosa.

TO the Berber peoples of South Western Morocco, the argan tree has been the ‘tree of life’ for generations. There, in the harsh, semi-arid, savannah-like lands, Argania spinosa has provided fuel, shade, fodder and oil for culinary and cosmetic purposes.

Although the area of this native open dry forest has shrunk, if wisely managed, the argan woodlands can provide a sustainable livelihood for the local people – and the production of argan oil in cooperatives for the western cosmetic market is proving the driving force. 


Forestry Journal: Argan trees are thorny, with gnarled trunks and small (2-4 cm), stout, oval, drought resistant leaves.Argan trees are thorny, with gnarled trunks and small (2-4 cm), stout, oval, drought resistant leaves.

The argan (Argania spinosa) tree is native to the calcium-rich, semi-desert Sous Valley of SW Morocco and the neighbouring Algerian region of Tindouf. The sole species in the genus Argania, it is sometimes dubbed the ‘Morocco Ironwood’.

To survive and thrive, the argan tree is extremely well adapted to drought and other environmentally challenging conditions. This species can grow to 8–10 metres high, live for 150–200 years, can cope with low rainfall and only needs 100–200 mm per annum. It becomes dormant in drier times and will burst into life when the rains return.

Argan trees are thorny, with gnarled trunks and small (2–4 cm), stout, oval, drought-resistant leaves. The flowers are small too, with five pale yellow-green petals, and bloom around April. The fruit takes over a year to mature, ripening in the following June to July.

These are 2–4 cm long and 1.5–3 cm broad, often shaped like an acorn, with a thick, bitter peel surrounding a sweet-smelling but unpleasantly flavoured layer of pulpy pith or pericarp. This encases the very hard nut or pit that contains one or occasionally more small, oil-rich seeds or kernels.

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And it is from those that this highly valuable oil is extracted, the driver for socio-economic change locally and which may offer a long-term sustainable future for the argan ecosystem. 


Most trees that reproduce sexually have evolved some mechanism to ensure their seeds are dispersed away from the parent tree. That may be on the wind or in water or, as in the case of argan, via animals.

Many trees with large, fleshy fruit rely on animals eating them. Passing through the gut, the outer casing is digested and the creature moves on to void the nut or seed in a new site, often neatly packaged in a dollop of dung to get germination and early growth off to a flying start in life. 

Once the Berbers relied on their goats eating the argan fruit to clean off the nutritive pericarp for them, then picked the seeds out from the droppings.

The nuts or pits were then ground and pressed to make the oil used in cooking and beauty products. However, the oil on sale today has most likely been harvested directly from the tree and processed with machines.

Too many goats are detrimental to the long-term survival of the argan woodlands as, given the chance, they browse off both any regeneration and climb the trees to consume the foliage and fruit in feats of arboreal acrobacy.

Forestry Journal:  The fruit takes over a year to mature. The fruit takes over a year to mature.

Extracting the kernels from the hard nuts is the key to the argan oil production process.

The fruits are first dried under the hot sun and then their fleshy pulp is removed.

Sometimes this is removed mechanically without the need to dry the fruits. The pulp is usually used as feed for animals. Nothing goes to waste. 

The next stage is cracking the nuts to extract the kernels or seeds. Attempts to mechanise this process have been largely unsuccessful, so it is still carried out by hand – a time-consuming and labour-intensive process.

Kernels destined to make argan oil for human consumption are then gently roasted, allowed to cool, ground and pressed. The cake left over is protein-rich and fed to livestock.

The traditional technique for extracting the oil is very labour intensive and done by hand, grinding the kernels or seeds  to a paste, with a little water, in a stone rotary quern.

The brown-coloured mash is then squeezed by hand and yields pure, unfiltered argan oil which is then decanted into vessels and left to rest and sediment out for a couple of weeks. 

Dry-pressing is becoming ever more important for oil produced commercially, as this method allows for faster extraction, and the oil produced can be used for up to 12–18 months. Depending on the method used, the kernels yield from 30 to 55 per cent oil.

The oil may then be filtered depending on the clarity and degree of purity required.

Cosmetic argan oil is produced almost identically, although the kernels are not roasted to avoid too nutty an aroma. It takes about 40 kilograms of dried argan fruit to produce only one litre of oil.


Forestry Journal: Genuine argan oil remains one of the rarest and most expensive natural plant oils in the world, used for both nutritive and cosmetic purposes.Genuine argan oil remains one of the rarest and most expensive natural plant oils in the world, used for both nutritive and cosmetic purposes.

Genuine argan oil remains one of the rarest and most expensive natural plant oils in the world due to the small and very specific growing areas. It is used for both nutritive and cosmetic purposes.

For edible ends, the oil is very nutritive, containing 80 per cent unsaturated fatty acids, is rich in essential ones and is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil so stores well. It is used for dipping bread, on couscous, salads and similar uses.

Argan oil has been used in Morocco for centuries to nourish and protect the skin, hair and nails. Rich in natural tocopherols (vitamin E), essential fatty acids and antioxidants, it is ideal for all skin types, even the most sensitive ones.

Still marketed in Morocco as a luxury item, it was once uncommon to find it for sale outside the region where it was elaborated. However, since the turn of this millennium, this natural product has become fashionable in Europe and North America where it is now widely available in specialist health and beauty shops – but at a price. It is upmarket, chic and expensive, retailing in UK stores for between £15 to £25 for a 100 ml glass phial of the genuine, un-doctored article. 

By 2020, production had increased exponentially, especially after studies had suggested health benefits. Almost all of the oil is sourced in Morocco, and is forecast to reach 17,802 tonnes in 2022, up from 4387 tonnes in 2014; in export value terms, £1.4 billion. 

The traditional extraction of argan oil is still a local cottage industry – slow, skilled, done by hand and labour intensive. The production for export is beginning to have noticeable environmental and social impacts and argan trees are now seen as a valuable resource.

This has led to them being safeguarded with a positive secondary impact on the environment. The labour-intensive nature of argan oil manufacture, often now done  by women’s co-operatives, has generated  a steady income for many women and their families, improved the social status of some women and has encouraged producers of other agricultural goods to adopt a  co-operative model. 


In Morocco, Arganeraie forests may still cover some 8,280 km², but that is down by about a half in the last 100 years, owing to charcoal-making, grazing, and increasingly intensive cultivation. A well-irrigated place, with meltwater from winter snows on the Atlas Mountains, this region has been one of Morocco’s most fertile areas since at least the 11th century, famous for cultivating and exporting sugar.

The zone now enjoys official protection and is designated by UNESCO as the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve. That covers a vast plain of over 2.5 million hectares, between and bordered by the High and the Little Atlas mountain ranges and the Atlantic to the west. 
Rights to collect the argan fruit are controlled by Berber law and village traditions. The fruit fall in July, when black and dry, and until that happens, goats are now kept out of the woodlands by wardens. Any leftover nuts are eaten by the goats later and then gathered in the time-honoured fashion. 

Forestry Journal: Tree-climbing goats spit out and disperse valuable argan seeds.Tree-climbing goats spit out and disperse valuable argan seeds.

But the best lasting hope for the conservation of the trees may lie in the recent development of a thriving export market for liquid gold or argan oil as a high-value cosmetic product.

Growing and marketing this valuable, natural Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) has already helped to protect these trees from being cut down. In addition, regeneration of the Arganeraie has started in the last decade in the province of Essaouira.  Although they take 40 years to come into full production, newly planted groves are not just a valuable gift to the next generation but will help in the battle against encroaching desertification. 

A recent national project is working with the local Berber communities, assisting with improvements to basic infrastructure, management of natural resources, revenue-generating activities (including argan oil), capacity reinforcement and others. New plantations are being established. 

However, new-found wealth can have a twist in its tail. As the Berber families acquire more capital, they invest it in the form of more goats so the vicious circle of over-browsing the argans could so easily become a downwards spiral. The goats could eat themselves and their herders out of existence in this fragile and unpredictable environment.  

Protected areas are vital but in the argan case, wise, sustainable use is probably the best way to salvation.