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Synonyms: African Butter Tree, Shea Butter Tree, Shea Nut Tree, Karité
Scientific Name: Butyrospermum parkii
Family: Sapotaceae (Sapodilla Family)
Savannah regions of the Sudan, headwaters regions of the Niger and the upper Nile.
Shea butter: saturated and unsaturated fatty acids with a large fraction of unsaponifiable triglycerides, oleic acid, triterpene alcohols, vitamin E, provitamin A, allantoin.
In its native country it would probably be described as small: the gnarled shea tree which grows to a height of 10 to 15 m. The lactiferous tree with its leathery leaves does not flower until it is 20 years old and only reaches maximum productive capacity at the age of 50 years, then remaining fully productive for more than 100 years. The green plum-shaped fruits, which become brown when they ripen, have a diameter of up to 4 cm. With a fat content of 50 % the kernels (nuts) are a sought-after source of fat in their African homeland. The shea butter obtained from them now has its followers all over the world.
To obtain the shea butter, also known as karité, the fat is first extracted from the nuts by warm expression, then refined with the help of bleaching earth and steam deodorised to reduce the very characteristic intrinsic odour.On account of its skin care properties shea butter is often used in cosmetic products, particularly for dry and allergy-prone skin. Shea butter is said to have the following qualities:
Through their moisture-binding properties, the unsaponifiable components, in particular, make the skin feel soft and smooth. In Africa shea butter is used traditionally for skin care, for relief of rheumatism, muscle and joint pain, also for prevention and treatment of stretch marks and for baby care. It is also used in animal care: in winter dogs particularly appreciate the skin care properties of shea butter when the salt on the streets gives their paws a hard time. Other uses of shea butter are as lamp oil, for making soap, and as salad or cooking oil.
The shea tree was given its name at the end of the 18th century by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. He was presumably inspired by the African Bambara language in which sii means sacred. In honour of Mungo Park the scientific name of the shea tree is still Butyrospermum parkii (Latin: butyro = butter, spermum = seed). In its Central African homeland the shea tree is the main source of fat for cooking and for skin care, the fruits are also eaten. As a sacred tree it is treated with particular respect. The harvesting of the fruits is therefore embedded in an ancient ritual called Begu. The beginning of harvest time is rung in with a festival at which drink offerings and the slaughter of a chicken beneath an ebony tree form the high point. The fat from the first nuts collected is used to make a dish of brown beans which is eaten by the village community during the festival. During harvest time the gathered nuts are sun-dried and shelled. The kernels are then pounded in wooden mortars to a coarse meal which is boiled according to a secret recipe to produce a butter-like mass. According to tradition only women are allowed to harvest the fruits of this sacred tree of the savannah. After this men are forbidden to lay a hand on the tree and are not allowed to fell it either. In the hot Sahara shea-butter has a life-preserving function. For centuries the people there have used it to protect their skin from the drying wind. In Germany shea butter products were first imported at the end of the 19th century. The first large-scale practical tests of its use in skin care were performed between 1930 and 1952. The chemists were very enthusiastic about the high fat content of the fruits as well as about their long stability without preservatives. In the mid-1960s shea butter disappeared from the world markets and was supplanted by the cocoa butter promoted by the industrial countries. In recent years the valuable raw material has regained significance as structure-giving natural substance in high-quality cosmetics.
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