Also know as Byttyrospermum vittaleria or Vitalleria paradoxa, the shea tree occurs naturally in a wide band across Africa, south of the Sahara desert. It grows freely in the savannahs of half a dozen countries and is predominant in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
It is a tall tree that takes 40 years to reach maturity and a height of 20m. It produces fruits the size of a large plum, formed of an outer skin, a thin fleshy layer and a kernel that hold 3 to 4 seeds.
The oil or butter, also know as Karite butter, has been produced and used for centuries by the local populations who have recognised its beneficial and soothing effects on the skin.
The fruits are first picked and peeled revealing the seeds that are cracked and pounded. The resulting paste is boiled in water until the oil comes up to the surface. It is then scooped into containers and left to cool down when it turns into a butter like consistency.
There are various grades of butters. The unrefined butter is a brownish cream in colour with a strong nutty aroma. Like coconut, it is solid a room temperature and will turn into a thick paste as the temperature rises. The melting point of Shea butter is about 33C.