Oil-rich jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-ba), a wild desert shrub native to the Sonoran Desert areas of southern California, Arizona, and northern Mexico, is now taking its place as one of the important agricultural plants of such hot dry regions of the globe.
Noel Vietmeyer, a New Zealander living in the United States and professional associate of the US National Academy of Science, was one of the first scientists to point out jojoba's potential. He says: "Jocoba oil can be transformed into an amazing array of products: motor oils that may need changing only every 32, 000 kilometers; rich creams that smooth and stabilize expensive cosmetics, and sparkling waxes so hard that you cannot score them with a thumbnail.
"In addition, chemists have found how to hydrolyze, isomerize, sulfurize, and chlorinate the oil into a plethora of ingredients for plastics, textiles, adhesives, and much more.
The San Carlos Apache Indians of Arizona began a jojoba enterprise in 1972 under the supervision of officials from the University of Arizona. By 1977 the tribe had opened a seed-processing plant and a candle factory. More than 500 members of the tribe now harvest and render the hard seeds. They are run through the specially built press for the extraction of oil.
In 1978 some 40,000 pounds of oil were extracted from about 100,000 pounds of beans produced by the Indians. The havesting and processing of jojoba have infused the San Carlos economy with approximately $100,000 a year.
Recently, the San Carlos Indians signed an agreement with the Cochimi Indians of Mexico's Baja California for 22,000 pounds of the jojoba bean.
Arizona State University's new Center for Arid and Tropical New Crop Applied Science and Technology advised the two tribes as they negotiated the compact.
"We've known the jojoba since time immemorial," says Ned Anderson, former chairman of the San Carlos project.
For centuries the Indians of the Southwest have used the pure oil of the jojoba nut as food, softening agent for leather, preservative, and cosmetic, especially in hair pomade.
It is only in the last six or seven years that scientists have discovered the value of the oil produced by the peanut-size seed.It contains a 40 to 60 percent high-quality, heat-tolerant liquid wax with properties of sperm whale oil. It could replace rare whale oil and serve as a high-pressure lubricant in American industry if it could be delivered at a competitive cost.
Native to the highlands of the Arizona Sonora Desert, southern and Baja California, wild jojoba seeks protection of mountain slopes and hillsides where warm winds save the seedlings from frost. It grows in many well-drained and well-aerated soil types at sea level on the Mexican coast to more than 4,000 feet in southern Arizona.
The plant requires about four inches of rain to reach a height of two or three feet. With more rain, it will shoot up to 12 to 15 feet in height.
At maturity, four to seven years, the female plant produces a fruit in the form of a hard brown acornlike nut which is about the size of a peanut. With gray-green, oblong-shaped leaves and small yellow flowers growing in nodes, it is a handsome bush, valuable in landscape ornamentation.
Lacking scent glands, the plant depends upon the wind for pollination. Insects do not find it appealing. It is an excellent browsing plant for cattle, deer, goats, and rabbits.
The beauty of the jojoba plant is that it needs only minimal water during the hottest summer months. As the ground-water level of Mexico's Hermosillo Coast drops to superexpensive pumping levels, and as the reservoirs of southern Sonora are reduced to ponds ever earlier in the summer, the idea of a not-too-thirsty cash crop is growing in its appeal to farmers in both Mexico and Arizona.
Dr. C. Brent Cluff and other hydrologists of the University of Arizona at Tucson have developed "water harvesting," an unusual technique for increasing the moisture the bush receives by diverting natural rainfall directly to the plants and storing the excess.
The water-harvesting process which gathers and stores runoff from rain or snow to slake thirst of livestock and wildlife on near-desert rangelands has been used to increase the yield of seeds on native jojoba bushes in areas that average only nine inches of rain a year.
This technique increases by 50 percent the moisture that plantation jojoba received.
It is estimated that jojoba will produce five times the income of an acre of cotton but will use only one-fourth as much water.
Harvesting from existing plants has been successful but new plantings have been hurt by frost, a problem still troubling researchers.
Its potential is limitless, as shown by the number of companies experimenting with the products: Corin Mills in England, Avon Products, Procter & Gamble, IBM, O'Brien Industries, Jojoba Secrets by Jojoba de California, and Neutronics in Phoenix, Ariz., which manufactures electronic precision parts.
Japanese companies, such as Koei Perfumery of Tokyo, are taking a great deal of interest in the plant.
The demand has caused the price to rise to such levels that Dr. Thomas Miwa, a researcher at the Department of Agriculture, calls it "liquid gold."
Buyers in the Southwest are paying from $4 to $6 a pound for jojoba seeds and from $40 to $60 a gallon for unrefined oil.
In Sonora, where production of the plant is ahead of the United States at least three years, there are 1,000 acres of jojoba under commercial production, and substantial amounts of seeds are being harvested from wild plants.
Kenneth Foster of the University of Arizona Office of Arid Land Studies, who is working to develop new markets for jojoba, says research is still needed to find the best soils, genetic strains, and climatic conditions for jojoba, as well as precautions against frost.
However, according to other sources, the industry has passed the experimental stage and is a commercial reality already. Sunland Industries, located a few miles from Phoenix, is a commercial jojoba seedling nursery and is very much involved in research.
The company not only has sophisticated nurseries and hotbed facilities for seedlings for plantation development, but supplies bulk seed and oil to wholesale and retail customers as well.
A number of cosmetic manufacturers are using these jojoba products, among them Jojoba del Yaqui Inc., Heuber Uncommon Sense in Phoenix, and Golden Company of California.
Jojoba has made a spectacular debut. It could have a future in developing countries in arid regions of the world.