You may have heard what the people of Morocco discovered centuries ago: the oil of the argan tree works wonders—the kind of antioxidizing, beauty-and-health-rejuvenating wonders that would seem too good to be true if they didn’t have real science backing them up.
But there’s more to the story of argan oil.
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.
I explored the origins of this desert miracle, touring the communities where the fruits of the argan tree are harvested and talking to the commercial producers and women-run cooperatives that deliver this singular product to the world.
The tiny piece of Morocco they call home
Driving west from Marrakech toward the Atlantic coast, you’ll quickly encounter rolling hills of argan orchards. This is the native home of the argan tree, and now a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve.
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. (The animals digest the flesh of the fruit and expel the “cleaned” nuts, which producers collect from the orchard floor, grateful for the assistance.)
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
The truth about goats in argan trees
One manifestation of the world’s increased interest in argan oil is the development of a kind of mythology surrounding goats climbing into argan trees to harvest the fruit.
You’ve probably seen photos of this elsewhere, and there is some truth to the matter.
Goats are fans of argan fruit—and the leaves and any other food they can find. Left to their own devices, they’ll eat whatever is on the ground. When that’s gone, they’ll happily climb into the trees to find more, bounding out onto branches that bend under their weight.
The popular myth has it that oil producers rely on the goats to “process” the fruit through their digestive tracts and that nuts collected from goat manure are easier to open.
While it’s true that gathered nuts are indeed used in production, most argan oil is produced from fruit that matures and falls from the tree on its own.
In fact, goat herders and orchard guards work hard at keeping the goats away from trees with unripened fruit to ensure they don’t consume future harvests before they’re ready.
Unfortunately, this myth has led to the practice of forcing goats into trees along major roads for the benefit of passing tourists, with the worst offenders even chaining goats to branches for days. (If you visit, steer clear.)
A story of empowerment
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.