February 17, 2017
Beginners Guide to the Argan Tree and Argan Forest

Anatomy of the Argan tree 

Scientific Name: Argania Spinosa | Other names: Moroccan Ironwood, Tree of life | Family: Sapotaceae (Sapodilla)

Argania is a genus of flowering plants containing the unique species Argania Spinosa, known as Argan, a tree endemic to the Souss valley of southwestern Morocco. Argan is a thorny evergreen tree that grows up to 10m high. Its life span is said to be anywhere from 125 to 450 years and the tree may not come into full production until it is 40-60 years old. Its flowers are small, with five pale yellow-green petals; flowering in April.

The Argan tree requires no cultivation and reproduces mainly through allogamy or cross-pollination. This occurs when pollen is delivered from one Argan flower to another on a new tree. The pollen transfer occurs through wind and flies.[1]

Akhal Beauty Argan Fruit to Oil

The Argan fruit is 2–4 cm long and 1.5–3 cm broad, with a thick, bitter peel surrounding a sweet-smelling but unpleasantly flavoured layer of pulpy pericarp. This surrounds the very hard nut, which contains one to three small, oil-rich kernels. The fruit takes over a year to mature, ripening in June to July of the following year.[2]

What makes the Argan tree so special?

Argania Spinosa is an 80-million-year-old relic tree species that has been known since the time of the Phoenicians in 600 BC. It is generally accepted that all Argan trees disappeared from Northern Africa during the Quaternary glaciations, except in the Souss valley.

Daily temperatures possibly going from -3 °C to 49 °C. The average annual rainfall is 280 mm. Evaporation is high, principally due to the chergui, a hot and easterly wind. Because of these combined climatic and geologic factors, the Souss valley and its surrounding mountains constitute an exceptional area, where the Argan tree is endemic.[3]

The Argan Biosphere Reserve

The Argan Forest was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1998.  It covers a vast plain of more than 2,560,000 hectares, bordered by the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains and open to the Atlantic in the west. Being a relic of the tertiary era, the Argania Spinosa species is extremely well adapted to drought and other difficult conditions. Growing along the border of the Sahara Desert, the Reserve also functions as a barrier against desertification. Much of the population in the biosphere reserve is of indigenous origin (Amazigh).[4]

 Argan Biosphere Reserve Morocco

What is the UNESCO biosphere designation?

The UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme is an intergovernmental effort that aims to establish a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments.  It combines natural and social sciences, economics and education to improve human livelihoods and the equitable sharing of benefits, including to safeguard natural and managed ecosystems.[5]

Why did the Argan forest receive the UNESCO biosphere designation?

From an ecologic and economic standpoint, the Argan tree accomplishes a lot: (a) it stabilizes the soil, reduces erosion, maintains moisture in the air, shelters a large variety of small and wild animals, and (b) it provides shade for domestic cultures and forms part of the Moroccan indigenous people's diet.

The symbiotic development between the Souss valley, the Argan forest and its indigenous dwellers has resulted in a balanced centuries-old rural micro-society. During the 20th century its area has been reduced by half. This has prompted a concerted local and international effort to preserve the forest which culminated in the Argan forest receiving the UNESCO biosphere designation.[6]

What is the impact from receiving the UNESCO biosphere designation?

Firstly, there is now a legally protected core area of the Forest where the Argan trees are not disturbed. The main function of this core area is to preserve its biodiversity for future generations. Surrounding or adjoining the core area is a "buffer zone" which is a clearly identified area where women’s cooperatives and indigenous people in general can use the tree. Beyond the buffer zones are transition or cooperation zones. These areas may include village settlements and local dwellings.

If you want to support sustainable and ethical development of the Argan Biosphere Reserve, please buy Argan Oil made by Indigenous Women's cooperatives involved in reclaiming lost forest land. 


[1] Phenology, Breeding System, and Fruit Development of Cultivated Argan [Argania spinosa (L.) Skeels]  http://www.jstor.org/stable/4256054

[2] Ronald Bellefontaine . De la domestication à l’amélioration variétale de l’arganier (Argania spinosa L. Skeels). Science et changements planétaires / Sécheresse. 2010; 21(1):42-53. doi:10.1684/sec.2010.0226

[3] Benzyane, M.; Blerot P.; Giot, P. Le Grand Livre de la Forêt Marocaine; Mhirit, O., Blerot P., Eds.; Mardaga: Sprimont, Belgium, 1999; p. 280

[4] http://www.unesco.org/mabdb/br/brdir/directory/biores.asp?code=MOR+01&mode=all

[5] http://www.georgewright.org/mab

[6] Charrouf, Z.; Guillaume, D. Argan Oil, Functionnal Food, and the Sustainable development of the Argan Forest. Nat. Prod. Commun. 2008, 3, 283-288

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