The mongongo tree (Schinziophyton rautanenii) is a member of the Euphorbia family. A large, spreading tree, it reaches 15-20 metres tall and is found on wooded hills and amongst sand dunes, particularly on Kalahari sand soils. It is adapted to withstand several years of drought and temperatures that range from -5˚C in winter to well over 40˚C in summer. The mongongo grows in large groves in six of the eight countries represented by PhytoTrade Africa. These groves can stretch for vast distances; some have been estimated as covering areas of up to 60,000 hectares.
The egg-shaped, red-brown fruits ripen and fall between March and May, and contain a thin layer of edible flesh around hard stone. Inside this stone is a tasty and highly nutritious nut similar to an almond that, when pressed, yields the mongongo oil. In some years the fruits are so abundant that they lie knee deep on the ground.
Map of Mongongo distribution and active producers
Traditional Uses and Known Properties
Mongongo oil is used as a body rub by the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari to cleanse and moisturise their skin, and protect it against the harsh desert environment.
The same tribe also eat the mongongo fruit as their primary food. The !Kung bushmen are one of the few peoples of the world whose blood pressure does not increase with age. Although this is unlikely to be entirely due to mongongo, the predominance of this fruit in their diets suggests a link.
The bright yellow oil pressed from the seeds of the mongongo tree contains high levels of vitamin E (tocopherol), linoleic and eleostearic acids, making it a very useful oil for skin protection. It is effective not only for hydrating the skin but also for restructuring and regenerating the epidermis.
The eleostearic acid reacts rapidly with UV light, producing polymerisation and providing a protective layer. The high vitamin E content also provides the oil with excellent stability which is proven in the heat of Southern Africa where the oil does not become rancid.
- Emollient skin care products.
- Sun care products.
- Protective and conditioning hair care products.
- Massage oil.
Useful studies on mongongo oil include:
- Athar, M. and S. Nasir (2005) Taxonomic perspective of plant species yielding vegetable oils used in cosmetics and skin care products. African Journal of Biotechnology 4(1): 36-44.
- Chisholm, M. and C. Hopkins (1966) Kamlolenic acid and other conjugated fatty acids in certain seed oils. The Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society 43: 390-392.
- Engelter, C. and A. S. Wehmeyer (1970) Fatty acid composition of oils of some edible seeds of wild plants. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 18(1): 25-26.
- Fox, F. and Norwood, Y. (1982) Euphorbiaceae In Food from the Veld.Delta Books, pp. 193-195
- Zimba, N., Wren, S., Stucki, A. (2005) Three major tree nut oils of southern Africa: Their uses and future as commercial base oils. The International Journal of Aromatherapy 15: 177-182.