Can this unassuming little desert shrub, the jojoba plant, really save the world?
Illustration By Fotolia/acnaleksy
Discover the jojoba plant's healing properties, one of a number of characteristics that makes it important to our food,
leather, paint, adhesives, cleaning and polishing, cosmetics, health, insulation, rubber, textile, and other industries in the
Tips on Jojoba Crops
Growing Jojoba Plants
The Healing Properties of the Jojoba Plant
No one really knows how long the native peoples of the U.S. Southwest have been harvesting and using the nut of the jojoba (ho-ho-be) shrub. As early as 1769, however, the famous Spanish missionary Junipero Serra reported that he had seen California Indians cooking with jojoba oil and using the fluid as a healing agent on wounds.
And there the matter rested until 1822, when an H.F. Link attempted to classify the jojoba plant. Unfortunately for us all, though, Mr. Link foolishly mixed his jojoba specimens (collected from the Sonora Desert) . . . with other plants gathered on a later field trip to China. This has since created two problems:  It caused a number of other botanists to waste a great deal of time, energy, and money fruitlessly searching that Asiatic country for the plant, and  it leaves the jojoba — a bona fide native of North America-saddled to this day with the misleading scientific name of Sim mondsia chinensis.
Still, it's hard to keep a good plant (even a misnamed one) down. And the hardy jojoba shrub — which can not only thrive in the kind of hot, dry deserts that kill most growing things, but produce an extremely valuable oil while doing it — is, indeed, a very good plant. Good enough, at any rate, to encourage several government agencies to attempt to introduce the jojoba to semi-arid, poverty-stricken northern Africa over the years. These efforts all failed, however, and the plant once again fell into obscurity.
Suddenly World War II — with its hotly contested struggles for control of both the planet's land masses and sea lanes changed all that. The increasingly sophisticated war machines thrown into the fray by nations on both sides of the conflict consumed absolutely frightening quantities of high-pressure lubricants — and that caused problems for everyone.
"High-pressure lubricants", you see, are not just ordinary cans of plants, animals, or petroleum-derived oil with a few extra additives thrown in. Not the really good ones. Rather, they're very special liquid waxes made up of nonglyceride esters (instead of the more common triglycerides) . . . and each of these nonglyceride esters is almost entirely composed of straight-chain acids and alcohols, each of which has 20 or 22 carbon atoms and 1 unsaturated bond.
This particular wax-ester structure is not at all easy to synthesize in commercial quantities and there seem to be two-and only two-natural sources of the chemical compound:  sperm whales, and  the — you guessed it! — jojoba shrub. And with naval battles, lurking submarines, and spy ships and boats of all descriptions cluttering up the globe's oceans and sharply reducing everyone's whaling activities . . . it was only natural that Allied Forces (which owned a near-monopoly on the plant) began experimenting with the harvest of the wild jojoba and the extraction of its oil.
The extraction part wasn't too difficult . . . but the harvesting of the wild jojoba's oil-laden nuts was something else again. The shrubs frequently grow ten feet high and ten feet in diameter . . . and the whole mass is often — in the words of The Jojoba Research Foundation — "a mass of tangled woody branches".
Picking the plant's nuts, in other words, can be a decidedly labor-intensive proposition. And once the war was over, most of us seemed to lose interest in doing anything so menial as hand-gathering the nuts from a shrub somewhere out in the hot, dry desert for crying out loud . . . especially when it was so much easier (and a lot more macho!) to just harpoon a few whales and render the special oil we needed out of them.
The only trouble was — as the late-40's turned into the 50's and then the 60's and, finally, the early-70's, and the world's weapons and tractors and earth movers and other machines became ever bigger, more numerous, and more sophisticated — everyone's thirst for high-pressure lubricants became more and more insatiable as time went on. And those "few" whales that we started out to kill soon threatened to become merely all the sperm whales in the sea.
And thus it is that now — with his back against the wall and virtually no where else to turn — homo sapiens has finally "discovered" the patient jojoba plant and cleverly surmised that it might be a darned good idea if he (in his infinite wisdom) explored the possibilities of cultivating the shrub for its oil-rich nuts. (When all else fails, do what you obviously shoulda done in the first place!)
And those nuts are rich in oil. Most jojoba seeds test out at between 45 to 60 percent . . . with the average nut running close to 50 percent clear, unsaturated, resin- and tar- and alkaloid- and glyceride-free oil. Furthermore, the fluid has a high viscosity index, high flash and fire points, high dielectric constant, and a pleasant smell . . . and seems to be so stable and resistant to oxidation that it can be stored for years — decades! — without ever becoming rancid.
Jojoba oil has even more desirable characteristics . . . far too many, in fact, to list here. Suffice it to say that the fluid is an ideal (the only ideal) substitute for sperm oil when it comes to the highly specialized lubricating products we've already mentioned. It also appears to be the only readily available source of straight-chain mono- unsaturated alcohols and acids. This and other unique properties of the oil seem destined to make the jojoba- now that we've finally begun to give it serious consideration: extremely important to our food, leather, paint, adhesives, cleaning and polishing, cosmetics, health, insulation, rubber, textile, and other industries in the future. Research has even shown that one derivative of the jojoba seed- sim mondsin — tends to act as an appetite suppressant in mono-gastric (single stomach) animals. No one yet knows why . . . but scientists are already speculating about a high-protein, entirely natural "diet" pill made from the jojoba nut!
While all this exploration of the jojoba's useful properties has been going on, equally valuable — or, perhaps, even more important — work has been taking place with the cultivation of the shrub.
Pilot tests at the University of California at Riverside, for instance, have demonstrated that the jojoba can be trained up into a tree-like form when the young plant is wrapped with nylon mesh. This permits the ripening nuts to be caught in nets and/or harvested with mechanical pickers something like the equipment used in almond orchards. This, of course, very neatly does away with the need for the menial, labor-intensive hand-gathering of the seeds that our culture finds so distasteful.
Experiments in Israel have also shown that the tenacious jojoba can grow and produce nuts in the hostile Negev Desert . . . even when irrigated only with lightly filtered and extremely salty Dead Sea water! Other pilot projects in the U.S. Southwest, northern Africa, and additional and sections of the world indicate that improved varieties of the plant can be bred which will produce several times the average five pounds of clean, dry seed that a wild female jojoba shrub bears annually.
The bottom line of all these experiments with the breeding and cultivation of jojoba on plantations already pencils in as a very optimistic conclusion: The shrub can not only  save the sperm whale, and  play a major role in keeping our industrialized society from starving and strangling itself and the planet to death . . . it can also create a new and highly profitable way for the inhabitants of poor, hot, and countries  to reclaim "useless" deserts while  becoming self-supporting and  contributing an extremely valuable commodity to the markets of the world.
Start-up costs of a jojoba plantation are now estimated at from $1,500 to $3,000 an acre and maintenance expenses currently average about $100 per acre per year. That may sound like a sizable investment . . . but the shrub begins to bear in only five years, improved and pruned varieties can yield from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of oil per acre, and the plant will continue to bear for a minimum of 100 and as long as 200 years.
Furthermore, when you know that two of the refined substances (sperm oil and carnauba wax, both in increasingly short supply) which jojoba oil so efficiently replaces currently sell for 40¢ and $2.00 a pound, respectively, you begin to understand what a boon this plant can be. Especially when it grows so well on hot, and land that will support no other major crop . . . with a minimum amount of irrigation, and no fertilizer at all.
That's almost like getting something for nothing . . . and a very important and valuable "something" at that. Why, the whole idea sounds too good to be true. Surely — although there's no arguing with the analysis of the jojoba's oil or the results of experiments with its cultivation — there must be a "fly in the ointment" someplace. What about the potential market for this "miracle" oil? Yeah, that's it! What'll happen to the price of the jojoba if too many of the world's and nations suddenly start raising it?
There doesn't really seem to be much chance of ever saturating the market. The Indians of the U.S. Southwest and western Mexico who now harvest nuts from the scattered patches of wild jojoba in their areas are a long, long way from satisfying the demand for the plant's oil. Even the 1,000-plus acres of cultivated jojoba plantations that have already been planted in anticipation of tomorrow's demand for the oil are a mere drop in the bucket to the over 100,000 acres of cultured jojobas that the National Academy of Sciences estimates the industrialized world could use right now.
And even that brave call for 100,000 acres of the plant pales into insignificance when you begin to realize what the Consejo Internacional Sobre Jojoba (International Conference on Jojoba and Its Uses) projects as the ultimate role this unusual shrub can play in our society.
"Jojoba can not only replace the endangered sperm whale and its banned oil as the major source of extreme-pressure lubricants, cosmetics, and other such specialized industrial commodities. This efficient, renewable converter of solar energy into oil can supplement — and someday may even largely replace — the steadily dwindling reserves of underground petroleum on which modern society so utterly depends for so many of its thermal and thermomechanical needs."
Think about that! Think about deserts reclaimed into neat plantations of trellis-grown shrubs . . . shrubs that supply us with everything from fuel to diet pills. Think about impoverished, arid, Third World nations being able — for a change — to earn enough foreign exchange to feed, clothe, and otherwise provide for their peoples. Think about saving the whales and other forms of life that are increasingly endangered by our fossil fuel economy. Think about all the things that the patient jojoba has been waiting so long to do for us.
There's no question about it: This still-little-known and largely unsung scrubby little desert tree just may hold the key to this planet's future. The meek may yet inherit the earth.
For more jojoba information:
Consejo Internacional Sobre Jojoba, 1815 N. University St., Peoria, Illinois. 61604: This seems to be the oldest jojoba organization around and CISJ's co-director, Thomas K. Miwa, is highly respected in the field. As long as the supply lasts, CISJ will send you a packet of 10 articles about jojoba for $1.00.
The Jojoba Center, P.O. Box 763, Carpenteria, California 93013: the service arm of the newly founded Jojoba Research Foundation. For $2.00 the center will send you a packet of information and a few jojoba seeds.
Printing and Publishing Office, National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418: The academy offers a very definitive, 32-page book about the jojoba plant, its cultivation, and its market potential for $3.75. Ask for Products From Jojoba: A Promising New Crop For Arid Lands. Another book, Jojoba - Feasibility of Cultivation on Indian Reservations in the Sonoran Desert Region, is also available for $6.25. a