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The History and Promise of Jojoba

By Gary Tremper

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What is jojoba? It's a plant that can grow in many semi-arid regions of the world, requires little water and maintenance and yields a crop of seeds that have many uses. The seed-oil has been used in lubricants, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and as a replacement for sperm oil in manufacturing of inks, varnishes, waxes, detergents, resins and plastics. In this era of dwindling natural resources and increased concern for the environment, maybe jojoba's time is now. (AW)

About The Author

Gary Tremper is a retired educator and a full-time proponent and cultivator of jojoba. For the past fifteen years, he has maintained a number of acres of jojoba in cultivation and regularly harvests and processes the seeds (nuts). His company, Jojoba Obispo, supplies oil for private and commercial uses and is a resource for information on jojoba.



The credit for naming jojoba has been assigned to several individuals from Hernan Cortez the despoiling conquistador of the Aztec culture to a Jesuit priest Francisco Clavijera in Baja California. It is assumed that the native cultures had been using the seeds for centuries as a food, the oil that was taken from the seeds as a cosmetic and the oil on skin afflictions and wounds as a medicine. The story goes that an unknown observer asked the Native Americans the name of the oil they were rubbing on their bodies and hair and then wrote the name "jojoba". And so it came to pass that a native plant of North America began its exodus out of obscurity into the modern world of today.

Jojoba has been assigned the name Simmondsia chinensis by the botanical world. The name however comes about by an error. Link, a botanist, traveled around the world collecting seeds and plants to catalog and describe. By mistake he got the seeds of the jojoba plant mixed up with seeds that he had collected in China hence the chinensis. International rules of nomenclature state that a plant once given a name is stuck with it. Jojoba did not occur in China naturally.

The "oil" from the seeds is unusual in that it is not an oil but a pure liquid ester! The difference between an oil and an ester is small and yet large in terms of properties. Vegetable oils have several alcohol groups on the molecule and some have forked molecules and will eventually oxidize and become rancid. Jojoba has only one alcohol group and is a straight chain molecule; therefore it is not subject to oxidizing and in fact is an anti-oxidant and will never become rancid. However, the liquid ester does have the ability to self polymerize in the presence of sunlight, so it is best to keep it in brown glass bottles, in the dark, or in closed metal cans. Research is presently underway at Jojoba Obispo to investigate the qualities and uses of polymerized jojoba oil.

The liquid ester is chemically almost identical to spermaceti oil which is also a pure ester found in the head of the Sperm whale. Jojoba is the ideal substitute for the oil of the Sperm whale which until restrictions was used for high temperature lubrication, cosmetics and as a lubricant for automatic transmissions. Perhaps jojoba really can save the whales.

Jojoba "oil" is a natural mimic of the oil secreted by human skin so it may be used to protect and lubricate skin and hair. It is soothing, stops multitudinous skin problems and protects against premature aging and wrinkling of the skin caused by exposure to ultra violet radiation.

The properties of and the myriad uses for jojoba were first announced to the world in 1933 when it was examined by a paint company for use in paint mixtures. This use was apparently unsuccessful but was a wake up call for the "Sleeping Princess Jojoba" as she (the oil) was called by Howard Scott Gentry, a renown Botanist of the Southwest.

"Princess Jojoba" first began to lift her eyelids in 1943 when duty called and "Princess Jojoba" was drafted. Many natural resources of the U.S. in 1943 were dwindling and substitutes were sought which could be used in the war effort. In this regard jojoba oil served the country well, filling in as additives to motor oil, transmission oil and differential gear oil. The ability of the oil to withstand high temperatures and carry away large amounts of heat from gear systems was a definite plus for the U.S. fighting machine. Even machine guns were lubricated with jojoba as it wouldn't gum up as petroleum would.

The end of the war in 1945 was a signal for oil companies to begin exploiting and developing their product; as a consequence, interest in jojoba fell by the wayside. "The Sleeping Princess" had to close her eyes and repose a little longer in her slumber.

In 1971 "The Sleeping Princess" opened her eyes and looked around once again as grants from benevolent agencies enabled researchers to explore the potential of jojoba as a possible substitute for or supplement to petroleum.

In the early 70's the First International Conference on jojoba was held in Mexico. Following this, a Second International Conference was held at the University of Arizona and attracted hundreds of individuals ranging from researchers and entrepreneurs to farmers and scam artists. The researchers and representatives of industry discussed subjects including uses of jojoba oil, lubricity, pollen counts and watering requirements for seedlings. "The Sleeping Princess" had awakened.

At that time the Office of Economic Opportunity was looking for a agriculture-based business which they felt could raise the economic level of the Apache tribe. Jojoba was the key to the project which was initiated by the Economic Opportunity Commission at the San Carlos home of the Apache. However, after an energetic start the project slowly faded away for reasons too lengthy to describe here and the Apache Nation stopped farming jojoba.

The Third International Conference on jojoba held in Riverside, California in September, 1978 and was attended by individuals from some 25 nations. Information on the cultivation of jojoba along with technical information about the plant and its oil were presented. There were also lively discussions on how jojoba might save the whales from extinction, the potential products which might be made by hydrogenated jojoba, and how large-acreage plantations could be grown. At the meeting Howard Scott Gentry said that "the road to jojoba development as a viable domesticated crop was a long and dusty one and when the entrepreneur, Dr. Jojoba and the farmer reached the end there wouldn't be any beer". In essence Gentry was saying that he couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel for jojoba production.

There arose out of the early days of the 70's a bonified and documented society called the JOJOBAS WITNESS. These were people whom Dr. Thomas Miwa called dedicated and whom Dr. Demitrious Yermanos called pilgrims. The society was created by Dr. Miwa and had 12 members. "The Sleeping Princess" was yawning and stretching.

By the late 70's a few cosmetic companies were producing products containing jojoba and it was appearing in shampoos, hair care products, shaving lotions, skin softeners and lubricants. With the introduction of "KEY" oil companies into the mix, jojoba was blended with petroleum products to increase the lubricity of lubricating oils. Pure jojoba oil was also beginning to appear at country fairs, swap meets and in some selected health food stores.

However, along with its increased use, there were rumors of adulterated, or chemically extracted oil being misrepresented as pure jojoba oil to unsuspecting buyers. Those rumors and another event which happened at the time forever changed the dreams of many entrepreneurs of jojoba. That event revolved around a certain (unnamed) food company which heard about jojoba and decided to corner the market on it. The company sent representatives into the prime seed growing area where jojoba oil producing companies bought their seed. The company then systematically raised the price they would pay for seed above the price their competitors were paying. The seed price war which ensued didn't result in the company cornering the market as hoped, but it did succeed in driving the price of seed up from $1.50 per pound to $20.00 per pound. This was reflected in an immediate rise in the price that cosmetics companies had to pay for the oil from $40.00 per gallon to $200.00 per gallon! The cosmetics companies responded by immediately replacing the jojoba oil in their products with a much less expensive chemical anti-oxidizer. The Princess looked suddenly tired and considered taking another nap.

This drop in the demand for jojoba unfortunately coincided with the I.R.S. removing the total tax deduction jojoba farming had enjoyed based on it being classified as an experimental crop. The I.R.S's decision to remove the deduction arose from their conclusion that jojoba was really a nut and since peanuts or almonds didn't qualify for a deduction, neither should jojoba. In response, Dr. Hal Purcell, then the president of the Jojoba Growers Association, got together a group of jojoba advocates, went to Washington D.C. and convinced the I.R.S that jojoba was not a nut and should be classified as an oil seed crop. The tax write-off was re-initiated. This tax status remained in effect until Reagan era tax reforms finally put an end to the deduction.

With an end to the deduction, domestic production of jojoba decreased as non-farmers who grew jojoba primarily for the write off allowed their fields to languish un-maintained. The Princess let out a little moan. On the positive side, while some of the farmers let their projects dry up and blow away, others continued in spite of the I.R.S. decision. By 1978 jojoba harvesting was in the 1000's of acres; and in fact today acreage in jojoba is significantly greater than the original native stands occupied when the tax deduction was in place.

Jojoba Farming

Jojoba has the distinction of being the first native plant since corn to be successfully domesticated. The methods used by jojoba farmers in the past have been varied, as there were no real records of the performance of cultivated plants in existence. Subsequent research, however, has led to a greater understanding of the classic farming requirements for jojoba.

Native populations occur between 23 and 34 degrees north latitude but a rule of thumb which I use is that jojoba will grow well wherever avocados do well and the days of full sun are greatest. Temperatures are critical but only in the low range. Temperatures in the high 20's will freeze the buds and new growth in mature populations. In juvenile plantations (three years old and younger) a very large number of plants will be killed; A very few may survive. In general the older the plant the less it will be damaged on a permanent basis by low temperatures. Jojoba handles heat very well.

Soil texture is important as jojoba grows best in sandy or decomposed granite or rocky soils and slowest in heavy clay soils such as adobe. Even if the fertility of the soil is marginal, jojoba is still able to produce well without the use of fertilizers. However, jojoba plants kept in containers seem to do better with some fertilization.

Irrigation systems are a must when establishing jojoba plantations whether by planting seeds or seedlings. The plants seem to do well on their own after two years of intensive watering in early winter and spring when the jojoba plant maximally utilizes water for growth. This watering period is a plus for the jojoba farmer as jojoba's water requirements will not conflict with the watering requirements for traditional crops. Under ideal conditions of soil, water and sun, the tap root will grow an inch a day; within two years the roots should reach the level of the aquifer thus enabling sufficient growth for seed production without supplemental watering.

In the wild, plants will produce a crop solely utilizing ground water and are also able to do so when in plantations assuming an underlying aquifer is available to the roots. If it is possible (and economically viable) watering should be continued every winter and spring as this will keep layers of water moving downward, thereby causing the root systems to develop at greater and greater depths each year. In this case, if the aquifer should drop because of over drafting, the plants will still have water each year for good seed production.

Seedlings can be expected to flower after three years growth. The plants are wind pollinated as pollen travels hundreds of feet in a breeze. There are no known insect pollinators other then accidentals. The flowers form in the winter and after pollination grow until they are mature seed in July. The seed skin will dry, shrink and split, whence the slightest breeze will send hundreds of the seeds to the soil below. Seed oil content may vary from 45% to 65%. The properties of the oil are constant regardless of geographical origin of the seed.

Rodents collect the seeds but like humans have no enzymes to digest them; so they waste energy in eating them. The largest native plants I have observed are in areas around 1500' elevation, with rocky sandy soil, with 15 to 18 inches of rain a year and where abundant rain water drains into low lying local depressions where the plants grow. I have observed the smallest native plants at about 4500' elevation even where precipitation was the same as precipitation in the large-plant areas. Jojoba tolerates salinity very well whether in the substrate (soil) or in the water. It has been observed doing well in brackish-water along the coast of California. It is grown successfully in Israel and is irrigated with water from the Dead Sea.

In order to maximize production, it would seem advantageous to plant rooted cuttings from sexed plants which are known high producers or known to have seeds with high oil content. Rooting the cuttings takes a little bit of technical know how but it would be worthwhile to have a plantation with 90% to 95% female plants, leaving the 5% or 10% males to produce adequate pollen for all the female flowers.

The Promise

The jojoba industry is alive and well but is still struggling. Many fields of jojoba have been planted. Some have met an end due to economic reasons. Some are thriving and producing large quantities of seed which is turned into oil and at the present time is being sold in Europe, Asia, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, North and South America and points between. It has been a long and dusty road so far, the end of the road is not yet in sight, but perhaps when the industry has a good hold of the problems associated with jojoba's development and marketing, there may just be a beer or two at the end.

© 1996 Gary Tremper

Gary at work in his jojoba farm

Gary can be reached through his company, Jojoba Obispo, at the address below:

Jojoba Obispo
P.O. Box 1761
San Luis Obispo, CA 93406

Jojoba: New Crop for Arid lands, New Raw Material for Industry by National Research Council (paper back) 116 pages

Jojoba Handbook by Paul Thomson, Howard S. Gentry 162 pages

Jojoba 338 pages text in English and Spanish


Seventh International Conference on Jojoba and Its Uses : Proceedings by A.R. Baldwin Hard cover 453 pages

The Chemistry and Technology of Jojoba Oil by Jaime Wisniak Hardcover 272 pages

Miracle plants: Jojoba and Yucca by Frena Gray Davidson Paperback: 64 pages

Aloe Vera, Jojoba and Yucca (Good Health Guide Series) by John Heinerman Paperback

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