The Shea tree (Butyrospermum parkii), is small (usually 40 - 45 ft high) and has a spreading canopy. The tree very much looks like the American Oak. It has a very thick bark which is highly fissured and fire resistant. The tree is found abundantly all across West Africa where it grows naturally in the woods. And in clearing woodland for farming, every tree but the Shea tree is cut because of its health, economic and social values in the community. It is forbiden to cut it. It takes about 50 years for the tree to reach maturity and can live upto 300 years. It is also drought resistant because of its long roots that grow deep into the earth.
Once a year, the Shea tree produces fruit which looks like a plum and contains one or two seeds or nuts. The nut is envelopped in a sweet pulp within the fruit. The pulp of the fruit can be eaten and the oil, which is extracted from the seed or nut is called Shea butter. The butter is prepared by roasting the nuts, pounding or grinding them and then extracting the pulverized nuts to separate the butter. This natural butter is edible and can last a whole year without any preservatives.
Shea butter has melting point which is just above body temperature at 37.8 degrees Centigrade. The very special property of Shea butter is its high content of unsaponifiable oil (i.e oil that cannot be converted). This unremovable oil withstands every attempt to transform it, and is indespensable for moisturizing and retaining the elasticity of the skin. Shea butter is unique because most plant butter do not contain oils which cannot be converted. The unsaponifiable oil therefore gives Shea butter the exceptional qualities. The butter has been used for thousands of years by African healers.