JOJOBA, THE SPERM WHALE OF THE DESERT

Jojoba or goatnut (Simmondsia chinensis)

SIMMONDSIACEAE, Jojoba Family

One of the great conservation concerns of the last several decades has been saving the whales, the largest mammals, from extinction. For two centuries whales were commercially hunted for their blubber, which yields excellent oils and other by-products. A major relief for the sperm whale came from an unlikely source--a dioecious, evergreen shrub of the Sonoran Desert, called jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis). Its specific epithet is a terrible misnomer, because this species is not native to China and only occurs in a fairly restricted region of northwestern Mexico and adjacent U.S., including California. Jojoba has fat seeds up to two centimeters long, which are loaded with a fine liquid that is an appropriate substitute for sperm whale oil.

Jojoba oil is technically not an oil but instead is a liquid wax. Indians of the Sonoran Desert crushed the seeds to obtain this wax and use it, among other things, for hair care. Extensive research has been done on this wax, and now jojoba oil is added to hundreds of manufactured liquids, ranging from shampoos and hair conditioners to automotive lubricants.

University researchers, especially at the University of California at Riverside and in Arizona, created great interest in this plant during the early 1970s. Indians living on reservations where jojoba grows wild were employed to harvest the large seeds by hand. Since then jojoba plantations have been established in semiarid habitats in the southwestern United States (e.g., Ventura County) and in dry regions around the world (e.g., Israel). Commercial demand is fairly high, but the supply now seems to be adequate. Because this species is dioecious, farmers want to plant mostly female shrubs. Moreover, plant selection has been conducted to develop plants that produce heavy crops.

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