Shea tree (botanical name Vitellaria paradoxa) has its origin in Africa and is found growing naturally in the southern regions of the Savannah grasslands. The area over which this perennial tree is found growing naturally extends from the eastern regions of Senegal to the northern parts of Uganda. Shea tree takes anything between 20 years to 30 years to achieve full growth, but it starts bearing fruits much earlier - after the trees have been in existence for about 10 to 15 years. The seeds, also called nuts, of this tree are used to make shea butter, which is very valuable commercially.
Although the knotty shea trees usually grow 10 meters to 15 meters tall, in the region of their origin they may still be called a small tree. Trees belonging to this species secrete a milky latex and produce leathery leaves. Shea trees do not come into bloom till they are 15, 20 years old and attain maximum productivity when they are about 50 years old. They remain very productive for another 50 years or even after they are 100 years old.
The fruits of shea tree are green and have the shape of a plum. When ripe, the fruits measure about 4 cm across and their color changes to brown. The kernels or nuts of shea fruit comprise about 50 percent fat and this fat is much sought-after in Africa - the native habitat of these trees. Now, people across the world have not only become accustomed to the shea butter, but also have a preference for it.
Similar to the baobab, which is also native to Africa, the shea tree is also called "karite" or the "tree of life", since it provides the local inhabitants with food as well as medicine.
Unprocessed shea butter is the natural extract of the plant's seeds and it contains its natural taste and properties. The color of pure shea butter is light yellowish, while it has a nutty fragrance, which is typical of the shea seeds. Unprocessed shea butter is the most useful form of shea butter, as it contains all its therapeutic as well as moisturizing properties unharmed, pure and undiluted.
On the other hand, chemicals like hexane are used to extract refined shea butter. Subsequently, this vegetative butter is bleached, perfumed and finally heated at extremely high temperatures. Consequently, the color of refined or processed shea butter is white, while it does not have any aroma. In addition, the refined shea butter also does not possess the original healing and moisturizing properties of the pure and unadulterated butter obtained from shea kernels. Moreover, the refined or processed shea butter is usually hard as well as grainy compared to the unrefined, pure shea butter, which has a creamy texture.
Leaves, roots, cortex, and bark of the tree.
She butter offers a number of health benefits. It shields us from sunburn and, hence, it forms an important element in most products that are meant to provide protection from the sun or post-sun exposure. At the same time, shea butter promotes healing of wounds and alleviates skin irritation. Being stable, shea butter allows quick release of medications and, hence, this substance can be used in the form of a base for ointments and suppositories. Traditionally, shea butter is used in medicines, especially for making ointments for skin care. It is also used to heal skin rashes and inflammation in children, sunburn, dermatitis, ulcers, chapping, irritation, and is also used on the skin to treat rheumatism. A decoction prepared from the leaves of shea tree is employed to treat headache, stomach ache and also in the form of an eye lotion. The roots as well as the bark of shea tree are pounded to make a paste and ingested for treating jaundice. Alternatively, the roots and bark are boiled in water and battered for applying it topically to girth sores and chronic sores in horses. The roots and bark of the tree are also used for treating stomach ache and diarrhea.
In Cote d'Ivoire people prepare a decoction from the bark of shea tree and use it in a bath with a view to assist childbirth. In addition, the decoction is also drunk by nursing mothers to promote breast milk secretion. Surprisingly enough, people in Nigeria consider this concoction to be deadly. An infusion made from the shea tree bark is used in the form of an eye wash, a footbath to facilitate extraction of jiggers, and also to counteract the venom of a spitting cobra. In Guinea-Bissau, people have also used the infusion internally for treating leprosy and various gastric problems, in addition to curing dysentery and diarrhea. People in Guinea and Senegal macerate the bark of Ceiba pentandra in this infusion along with salt and the resultant liquid is used for treating cattle with worms. It is worth mentioning here that Tapinanthus globifera, a parasitic plant commonly found on the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) also has several therapeutic uses.
Shea butter is very stable and, therefore, it is often used as a base for medications meant for topical application. Applying shea butter externally to the affected areas helps to alleviate rheumatic and joint pains, while it is also effective in healing bruises, wounds, swellings and several other problems related to the skin. Traditionally, people have been using shea butter to get relief from inflammation inside the nostrils. Horses are given shea butter both internally as well as externally for treating galls and sores.
Shea tree leaves are employed for treating stomach aches, in addition to adding them to vapour baths for treating headaches. They are also boiled in water and the solution is used as an eye wash. When the leathery leaves of this tree are soaked in water for some time, it produces excellent lather and the solution is good for washing clothes. Pounded roots and bark of this tree are employed for treating stomach ache, diarrhea and jaundice. The roots are also useful in veterinary medicine and used for treating a number of conditions related to horses.
The infusion prepared from shea tree bark possesses therapeutic as well as anti-microbial properties, especially against dysentery. This infusion is also used to rinse the eyes to neutralize the venom of spitting-cobra. A decoction prepared from the bark has been traditionally used in baths with a view to facilitating childbirth as well as promoting lactation in breast-feeding mothers.
Significantly enough, all the parts of the shea tree are used for therapeutic purposes and form an active ingredient of various medications that are meant for treating skin complaints such as dermatitis, eczema, leprosy, provide protection from sunburn, soothe sunburn and also neutralize the detrimental ultra-violet (UV) rays of the sun. Shea butter is also used for healing wounds and massaging stiff joints, in addition to treating injuries and sores of animals. The roots of shea tree are used for cleansing the teeth as well as promoting oral health, much in the same manner as people in Pakistan use the bark of the walnut tree. The bark is also used for treating eye problems as well as eliminating parasites that invade bare feet.
In Sahel (the region between Sahara desert and Savannah region), people find shea butter obtained from the nuts (kernel) to be most affordable vegetable fat and, therefore, use it extensively. Currently, shea butter is also valued by people across the globe and it is marketed to numerous food industries in Europe and Japan. Processed shea butter is sold in the form of margarine, baking fat and various different types of fatty spreads under several brand names and is increasingly used in a variety of foodstuffs. The fat composition of shea butter is somewhat same as that of cocoa butter and, hence, it is frequently used in the form of an alternative for cocoa butter. It is often used in pastry as it makes extremely workable dough.
Unprocessed shea butter prepared in the traditional process is marketed in the form of loaves, while properly prepared shea butter that is enveloped in leaves possess the ability to resist oxidative rancidity and will remain in good condition for consumption for several years, provided it is neither exposed to air or heat. Shea nuts that have been cleaned properly and somewhat dried in the sun without being macerated earlier will actually be like an odourless and tasteless fat. In fact, even shea butter prepared traditionally and refined will also be odourless and tasteless.
About 50 to 80 percent of the whole shea fruit comprises the sweet edible fruit pulp. People who want to eat the fruit raw allow it to become a little overripe. You can also consume shea fruits after cooking them lightly.
Often children in place where shea trees are found growing in the wild consume the nuts raw. Some ethnic groups in Africa also use the flowers of shea tree to make fritters. People in Senegal and Nigeria dry out and sell the Cirina butyrospermii caterpillars that nourish on the leaves of this tree in the local markets. Rich in protein content, these caterpillars are occasionally consumed in a sauce.
Shea butter is used as a base for several cosmetic products, particularly lotions, moisturizers and lipsticks as this substance is very stable and contains highly unsaponifiable matter that possesses wonderful moisturizing properties. Often, inferior quality shea butter, which is usually diluted by adding oil to pure shea butter, forms the base matter for various soaps. In addition, shea butter is extremely appropriate for making candles, as it melts at very high temperatures.
Shea butter is also an excellent water-proofing agent and it is used for coating walls as well as doors and windows. After oil is extracted from shea butter, a sticky black-colored substance is left behind. This substance is effectively used to seal fissures in the wall. It is also used for making the walls water-proof.
The waste water left behind after producing shea butter possesses pesticidal attributes. In Burkina Faso, farmers mix this water with cowpea seeds before they store them with a view to protect the seeds from being consumed by the weevil called Callosobruchus maculatus. However, the press cake is not fit for consumption by livestock as they contain several compounds that are detrimental for health of the animals. Nevertheless, they can be detoxified and given to livestock as a meal in very small amounts. In Europe, people use this press cake in the form of a non-nutritional bulk while making compound cakes. This press cake as well as the husk of the shea seeds have good potential of being utilized as fuels and fertilizers.
Both, the blooms and the fruits of shea tree are vital foods for the people inhabiting the regions where this plant has its original habitat. Sometimes, locals use the flowers to make fritters. Although the shea fruit possesses mild laxative properties, people in the Savannah regions consume them raw when ripe, especially during the planting season and while the land preparation is on, as other foods are often scarce during this time. The pulp of the ripened fruits that falls on the ground has a sweet flavour and can also be given to livestock.
The shea tree yields reddish latex, which is known as red kano rubber or gutta shea. This latex comes out from the deep cuts made by people in the bark. This latex is used to make a glue, chewing gum and also soft balls for children. Musicians also use this latex to repair their drums.
The husk of the nuts or shea seeds are used in the form of fuel and fertilizer. Poor quality oil obtained from the husk is utilized for lighting purposes and also to waterproof beehives. The oil as well as butter obtained from shea tree can be utilized for cooking. On the other hand, the wood of this tree has the ability to resist termite attacks and, hence, it is used for making furniture as well as in construction work.
Often local people use shea oil and butter during religious ceremonies or for spiritual purifications. They are also used to anoint or daub the dead. While the rubber-like glue exudes by shea trees is used for making chewing gums, glue and children's balls, the black sticky residue left after producing shea butter is utilized to fill up cracks in the walls and make buildings waterproof (as mentioned above).
The timber of shea tree has a brownish-red hue and when exposed to air, its color becomes dark very soon. This wood is heavy, tough, sturdy, resilient. Notwithstanding the solidity, shea wood can be sawed and made into planks without much difficulty. In addition, this timber also takes a good polish and also nails, glues and screws well. However, it is advisable that you should take some care before boring the wood to ensure that it does not split. The wood from shea trees is also good as house posts, in engineering structures and to support poles. Many a times, this wood is also used for shingles, in ship building, making fences and stakes, sleepers, seats, as joinery and for medium as well as heavy flooring. Shea wood is also utilized for making household utensils, long-lasting bowls and platters, grinders and mortars as well as tool handles. As mentioned earlier, this wood can effectively resist termite attacks.
Chemical analysis of shea butter has confirmed that it contains both saturated as well as unsaturated fatty acids along with a significant portion of unsaponifiable triglycerides (triglycerides that can't be converted into soap after treating them with alkali), triterpene alcohols, oleic acid, allantoin, vitamin E and provitamin A.
It has been found that shea fruits enclose four times more vitamin C compared to oranges. In addition, the oil extract from the fruit contains vitamin A and vitamin E. Shea kernel or seed contain high amounts of arachidic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic fatty acid in addition to stearic acid.