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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.)