Most of us are probably familiar with a number of plants or trees with fruits/nuts that produce oils/fats that are solid at room temperature (coconuts, cocoa, shea tree). Obviously these solid, plant-based fats have many uses, from cooking, to cosmetic, to even industrial uses. So many homemade/natural/zero waste products rely on ingredients like these and they're great to have. But they're all sourced tropically. They could be grown in small numbers in hoop houses or green houses (depending on how "temperate" your clime), but I'm interested in whether there are plant based sources that could be grown further north, in the outdoors without (much) protection or pampering. There are Mexican avocadoes that can get down to 10 F and probably further with breeding, but something that separate cados from the above examples is how much more shelf-stable coconut, shea, etc. are.
It would seem crazy to me that out of 400,000 plant species, not a single temperate species produces a solid fat, but I suppose it's possible. And if that's the case, I wonder why that is? Is there something about the way plants like cocoa or shea make these oils, or their chemical structure, that could only occur in warmer temperatures? What might that be? Man, I should have gone into botany instead of the social sciences!!!
Note: Not interested in animal based sources like fat or butters. In the rough thought experiment that guides my interest in homescale permaculture (and even beyond my own moral and ethical issues with even the most benign animal-rearing) the reality is that the lower on the trophic ladder you are sourcing food and materials, the more intensive production can be, with the least consumption of water, nutrients, etc. In the mostly suburban context of the USA, maximizing production on small spaces is important for "suburban retrofitting" IMO.
It's probably because they grow in a temperate climate. an oil that was solid in our climate would be very hard to move around a plant.
posted 2 months ago
That's my thinking as well, but I don't know enough about where and when these fats are synthesized in the plant (e.g. the same combination of fatty acids that is in the coconut is not necessarily circulating around in the plant - they might synthesize in the fruit itself, so transporting them around the plant is not such a big deal. There are also places where coconut trees grow well. Also, the melting point of these oils is relatively high (coconut oil 76, shea butter in the 90s), yet there are climates where these plants grow just fine in quite low temperatures - there're coconut trees in Tampa, FL, where temperatures in the cold months are in the 50s on average, sometimes getting considerably lower. You'd think if it were a problem of the plant equivalent of arteries getting clogged, that it'd only live in the most tropical climates.
The fats are mostly in or around seeds, providing energy for new sprouts. Perhaps there is some metabolic advantage to the fats being liquid at sprouting temperature of the seed? Purely speculating.
Or maybe its just that you are really looking for a very specific intersection of traits that make a plant a commercially useful source of fat, and these traits may not bestow any evolutionary advantage on the plant. E.g. you're not just looking for a plant that contains some fat which is solid (but soft enough to be useful) within a specific temperature range (say 60-85 degrees farenheit), but also a fat which is readily extractable, edible to some degree, with a neutral or pleasant aroma/taste, and present in large enough quantities to be economically worthwhile. So maybe it's just coincidence that the few plant meeting all these criteria are tropical or subtropical.
For non-culinary uses, there are myrtle/bayberry shrubs that are a traditional source of wax in temperate climates.
posted 2 months ago
Yeah, I'm leaning toward the latter - that it's essentially a miracle that even just a few plants have this exact mix of traits, and so much of our planet's biodiversity is concentrated in tropical hot spots that it's probably a matter of odds. Still an interesting question!
Great point on the bayberries - I was violating my own (only plant sources) rules and have been thinking about beeswax as a sensible replacement in cosmetics. It may be silly of me, but I just wasn't really thinking about waxes as a fat that shares similar qualities to these oils. But myrtle/bayberry wax pretty much checks off all of the boxes I'm looking for in that sense. I think I'll do a bit of experimenting with it! Thinking of waxes as having these similar properties definitely opens things up quite bit
For culinary uses comparable to how one would use butter, I also had a little flash of insight: in this whole thing I've been thinking about what temperatures these fats (coconut, shea, cocoa) melt at. I read an interesting article about how, because they are composed of several different chains of fatty acids, coconut oil and the like don't have one "melting point", and that different parts of the fats are actually melting at different temps. Beeswax candle making is the same way - beeswax melts between 145-150 F. Only thinking about the melting points, I was failing to think on the flip-side - what are the freezing/solidification points of other oils? There might be some that are liquid at "room" temp, but only because we generally only keep our rooms in the comfy 60 - 75 F range. Maybe there are some oils that are solid at 55 or even 60 and could just be kept in the fridge to be treated like butter in a spreadbility sense? A quick look at some common oils shows that avocado oil starts to solidify around 50 F, and peanut oil in the high 30s. Again, I'm counting avos because I've seen them survive into zone 8 (with plenty of protection). I'll post back here if I find anything interesting to add!
Men call me Jim. Women look past me to this tiny ad:
Greenhouse of the Future ebook - now free for a while