Brief Summary

Vitellaria paradoxa, shea, shea butter, or shea-buttertree (also called karite-nut), is a large, long-lived tree in the Sapotaceae (soapberry family) that is native to the Sahel region of West Africa and is a key species in traditional agroforestry systems (vital for erosion control) and an important source of edible oil, shea butter, which is derived from the seed. Shea butter is also used in cosmetics, skin emollients, and pharmaceuticals, and has become increasingly popular outside Africa for these uses in the past three decades, increasing its value as a cash crop (it was Ghana’s 3rd-ranked cash crop in 2006). Shea can also be used for its edible flowers and fruit, in traditional medicine (to treat wounds and sprains, as a decongestant, and as an arthritis treatment). Its wood, which is hard and reportedly termite-resistant, is desirable as lumber, and was traditionally used to make coffins for kings. The wood is also good for making charcoal. Shea trees are protected from harvest in many places by local and state regulations, but are still classified as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, due to threats from timber and fuel harvest, as well as increasing agricultural encroachment.

The shea tree, which resembles an oak (Quercus species) in its general size and form, grows up to 20 m (65 ft) tall and 1 m (3 ft) in diameter, with a dense, many-branched crown. It is deciduous, but appears evergreen, because new leaves emerge as the old ones fall. The bark is thick, deeply fissured, and fire-resistant. The tough, leathery leaves are elliptical to oblong, with entire margins, and are clustered at the branch tips (alternate to whorled). The flowers are cream to brown, in dense terminal clusters, and are insect-pollinated. The fruits are round to elliptical drupes, 3 to 6 cm (1.1 to 2.25 in long), borne on peduncles (fruit stalks) 1 to 3 cm (0.5 to 1.25 in) long. The fruits are drupes, with fleshy greenish yellow pulp surround a hard- but thin-shelled seed, an egg-shaped kernel that weighs around 3 gm (about 1/10 of an ounce).

The process of purifying shea butter from the seeds is labor-intensive, but results in an oil that is solid at room temperatures, forming a white creamy to solid paste, which is used in foods and for frying.

Shea trees are difficult to propagate, and only in recent years have plantations begun to be established. However, as the focus of a long-established traditional agroforestry system, millions of trees have been nurtured on thousands of hectares of land in the Sahel, over hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

(IUCN 2012, National Research Council 2006, Wiersema and León 1999.)

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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Restricted to dry savannah and woodland.

  • Terrestrial
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Vitellaria paradoxa

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment

Red List Category

Red List Criteria


Year Assessed
  • Needs updating

Makerere University Institute of Environment and Natural Resources



  • 1997
    (Walter and Gillett 1998)
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Major Threats
This species has been overexploited for timber, firewood and charcoal production. Its habitat is also suffering from agricultural encroachment and increasing population pressure.
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Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
It is poorly represented in protected areas but is occasionally given protection or planted in farmed areas.
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Vitellaria paradoxa (formerly Butyrospermum parkii), commonly known as shea tree, shi tree, /ˈʃ/ or /ˈʃ.ə/, or vitellaria, is a tree of the Sapotaceae family. It is the only species in genus Vitellaria,[1][2] and is indigenous to Africa. The shea fruit consists of a thin, tart, nutritious pulp that surrounds a relatively large, oil-rich seed from which shea butter is extracted.

The shea tree is a traditional African food plant. It has been claimed to have potential to improve nutrition, boost food supply in the "annual hungry season",[3] foster rural development, and support sustainable landcare.[4]


The tree starts bearing its first fruit when it is 10 to 15 years old; full production is attained when the tree is about 20 to 30 years old. It then produces nuts for up to 200 years.

The fruits resemble large plums and take 4 to 6 months to ripen. The average yield is 15 to 20 kilograms of fresh fruit per tree, with optimum yields up to 45 kilograms. Each kilogram of fruit gives approximately 400 grams of dry seeds.


Shea butter fatty acid profiles[edit]

Shea butter is composed of five principal fatty acids: palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic, and arachidic (see Table below). About 85 to 90% of the fatty acid composition is stearic and oleic acids. The relative proportion of these two fatty acids affects shea butter consistency. The stearic acid gives it a solid consistency, while the oleic acid influences how soft or hard the shea butter is, depending on ambient temperature.

The proportions of stearic and oleic acids in the shea kernels and butter differ across the distribution range of the species. Ugandan shea butter has consistently high oleic acid content, and is liquid at warm ambient temperatures. It fractionizes into liquid and solid phases, and is the source of liquid shea oil. The fatty acid proportion of West African shea butter is much more variable than Ugandan shea butter, with an oleic content of 37 to 55%. Variability can be high even locally, and a tree that produces hard butter can grow with one that produces soft butter. Nuts are gathered from a wide area for local production, so shea butter consistency is determined by the average fatty acid profile of the population. Within West Africa, shea butter from the Mossi Plateau region of Burkina Faso has a higher average stearic acid content, and so is usually harder than shea butter from other West African regions.

Worldwide shea nut production
Leaves of a shea nut tree
Fatty acid variation[5]
Fatty AcidMeanMinMax
16:0 Palmitic4.02.68.4
18:0 Stearic41.525.650.2
18:1 Oleic46.437.162.1
18:2 Linoleic6.60.610.8
20:0 Arachidic1.30.03.5

Shea butter phenolics[edit]

Phenolic compounds are known to have antioxidant properties. A recent study characterized and quantified the most important phenolic compounds in shea butter. This study identified 10 phenolic compounds, eight of which are catechins, a family of compounds being studied for their antioxidant properties. The phenolic profile is similar to that of green tea, and the total phenolic content of shea butter is comparable to virgin olive oil. Also, this study was performed on shea butter that had been extracted with hexane, and the authors note that traditional extraction methods may result in higher phenolic levels. Furthermore, they note that the catechin content alone of shea kernels is higher than the total phenolic content of ripe olives. This study also found that the overall concentration and relative percentages of different phenolic content in shea kernels varied from region to region. The authors hypothesized that the overall concentration of phenols in shea kernels is linked to the level of environmental stress that the trees endure.[5]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Distribution of shea trees

The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. It occurs in 19 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Guinea.

A testa found at the site of the medieval village of Saouga is evidence of shea butter production by the 14th century.[6]


Shea butter has many uses and may or may not be refined. In the West it is mostly used for cosmetics as emollient . Throughout Africa it is used extensively for food, is a major source of dietary fat, and for medicinal purposes.


The common name is shíyiri or shísu (lit. "shea tree") in the Bambara language of Mali. This is the origin of the English word, and is pronounced "shee" to rhyme with "tea." The tree is called ghariti in the Wolof language of Senegal, which is the origin of the French name of the tree and the butter, karité. In Hausa language the tree is called Kade or Kadanya.

The tree was formerly classified in the genus Butyrospermum, meaning "butter seed". The species name parkii honors Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who learned of the tree while exploring Senegal. Park's Scottish origin is reflected in the English word shea, with a final -ea.

Vernacular names in Niger-Congo languages[edit]

KusalTa'amashea nuts
Gonjakakulugushea tree
Dagbanitááŋ̀àshea tree
Nupeèkóshea-butter nut
Obiroòkʷôshea tree
Tinorkɔ̃̀ɲɔ̃̀shea tree
Akekìkyɔ̃̀shea tree
Tarokìkíníshea tree
Doorikóláshea tree
DagaareChuumashea nuts
TalensiTa-anshea tree


  1. ^ Vitellaria paradoxa. AgroForestry Tree Database. World Agroforestry Centre.
  2. ^ Byakagaba, P., et al. (2011). Population structure and regeneration status of Vitellaria paradoxa (C.F.Gaertn.) under different land management regimes in Uganda. Agricultural Journal 6(1) 14-22.
  3. ^ E.T. Masters, J.A. Yidana and P.N. Lovett. "Trade and sustainable forest management". FAO.org. Retrieved 2010-09-14. 
  4. ^ National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Shea". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  5. ^ a b Maranz, Steven; Wiesman, Zeev; Bisgaard, Johan; Bianchi, Giorgio (2004). "Germplasm resources of Vitellaria paradoxa based on variations in fat composition across the species distribution range". Agroforestry Systems (in cooperation with ICRAF) (Kluwer Academic Publishers) 60 (1): 71–76. doi:10.1023/B:AGFO.0000009406.19593.90. (subscription required (help)). 
  6. ^ *Neumann, K., et al. 1998. Remains of woody plants from Saouga, a medieval west African village. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 7:57-77.


  • Makerere University Institute of Environment and Natural Resources. 1998. Vitellaria paradoxa. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. Downloaded on 14 June 2013.
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