Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 12: Jojoba

Jojoba, a high desert plant of the southwest and Sonoran areas of Mexico produces nut sized seeds, singly in each fruit, which leads people to refer to them as Jojoba Nuts.  The name is from the O'odham languages of the Sonoran desert. The rugged looking plant is known by several nicknames, including:  Deer Nut, Goat Nut, Coffee Bush and, curiously, Witch Hazel, which it is not; true witch hazel is a group of plants from the Hemamelidacae family, and is an eastern woodlands native.  The nuts have long been a food for natives living in it's range, with various degree of acceptability that varied from group to group.  Some considered it a delicacy, and roasted it up quite willingly; others considered it a famine food only.  The Cahuilla were known to roast them up for a beverage that they enjoyed, while the Seri, much further to the south, who are considered to be fully exploitative of all plants in their area, don't consider them to be proper food, and would only eat them, processed, in times of famine.

Jojoba Market on the San Carlos Apache Reservation

Another curiosity of the plant is that it's Latin designation is Simmondsla chinensis, labeled by Johann Link falsely thinking that Nuttall listed the plant as coming from China, when it listed it as coming from California, but with the abbreviation "Calif."  Plants have the Latin names changed all the time due all sorts of classification clarifications; why this remains this plants species name is a complete mystery to me!  It was briefly changed, and then changed back, because of so-called "priority rules":  dumb!  It likes to grown in elevations of between 1000 to 5000 feet, and open pollinated between male and female plants.  Two things that it does from time to time is 1) lapse into leafless dormancy for years if there is a drought, and 2) produce hermaphrodites is the plant is alone and doesn't have a reproductive partner.  The nuts are extremely high in oil content, which give the plant it's other names "Deer nut" and "Goat nut."  It provides food for wildlife of all sorts, includes imported animals; however, only one mammal has evolved to actually be able to fully digest the wax in the seeds:  Bailey's Pocket Mouse.

Pioneers learned from natives that the nuts, when roasted could be ground and made into a very acceptable coffee substitute, hence one of it's nicknames "Coffee Bush." It turns out that, except for the above mentioned mouse, the nuts are toxic to mammals in large quantities; something that was discovered when an attempt to grow and process jojoba into animal feed.  No mammals, including humans, had ever eaten so much of the nuts that they became a real problem.  In humans, and probably other animals as well, they have a laxative action on the digestive system, which has led to them being used in traditional medicines amongst some desert people.  This is likely due to the fact, that although the whole jojoba bean is about 35% protein, the oil it contains is almost 80% indigestible....unless you are one of those mice!  Another indigenous medicinal use for the plant was reported early on by a Spanish unknown Jesuit priest, who stated that it was used in emergency situations.  If someone was shot with an arrow, say, as many jojoba nuts were poked into the wound and left until the person could further care.  Not only did they help keep the wound from bleeding, but they actually had inflammation retardation effect, likely because of the high amount of tannins in the raw nut.  It has now been conclusively proven that jojoba oil is fungicidal.

As mentioned the raw nut contains a lot of tannins, and therefore extremely bitter and need processes to use for food; much like most types of acorns.  For the longest period it's use as food and beverage and the few medicinal uses the plant had.  But in the 1900's the oil itself was eyed because of it's high wax content (the fruit contains about 50% oil in content--that's high!), and was seen as a very good substitute for sperm whale oil (that was conclusively proven in 1971).  Which it is.  After this application was discovered, several other non-food uses were discovered as well--the most well known being it's use in acne treatment.  It also goes into some beauty supplies, such as bath oil and hair treatments....even shampoo.  These have expanded greatly in the last 20 years, with jojoba being found in everything from oil soaps to body scrubs.  At first the only real demand for jojoba hair and oil treatments was in Mexico, with the oil being used by some traditional healers; no longer!  Now, it's found in the most expensive spas worldwide.  It has become extremely important in the perfume industry, because the oil is something called "a carrier oil," which means that it holds and carries fragrance very well, which allows for less of the valuable extracts that provide the fragrance to be used.  As a lubricant in industry, the oil is completely biodegradable.  I would also guess that this plant is being eyed in the biofuel craze as well...we will see.

When industrial applications of the plant were first beginning, there was a fair amount of local encouragement for Indians on various reservation to start to cultivate jojoba as a possible cash crop.  Now the commercial demand for jojoba has completely out-striped the ability of the southwest to supply it, with most jojoba coming into this country from abroad (Asia, Africa, Australia, etc.), not going out to worldwide locals.  There is some economic benefit locally in the southwest, however, with some native groups participating in that demand (see the above photo from San Carlos).  Jojoba has now become the second most valuable economic plant in the Sonoran Desert, in behind the Washington Palm

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