Botanic Notables: Ivory of the Rainforest

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Botanic Notables: Ivory of the Rainforest

June 29, 2012
12:54pm
Photo by: Nature'sBeads/Etsy (left), Acaibeads.com (right)

When first harvested, seeds of the Phytelephas aequatorialis tree are white, though you might be more familiar with them as brightly-colored baubles in your jewelry box. Tagua (pronounced tog-wah) nuts, or "ivory of the rainforest," from the Ecuadorean Ivory Palm, are a sustainable alternative to elephant ivory. The seeds are hard and smooth, as well as being easy to carved and dye. They are lustrous as Bakelite and smooth as ceramic, with a chromatic depth I associate with silk or the complex grain of walnut wood. They are the stuff that beads, buttons, figurines, and jewelry are made of—in fuschia, eggplant, and indigo. I have a turquoise ring that tends to mesmerize when I look at it for too long.

Tagua

Cross-section of a tagua fruit, showing four seeds with pericarp and endosperm, (left), photo credit: macramebracelets.com; Carved and dyed tagua ring (right), photo credit: Anna Laurent.

A native of the Colombian rainforest, the tree's fruits have long been harvested for their seeds—the plant's genus name, Phytelephas, means "elephant plant." According to a botanist at Palomar College, the ivory nuts have been exported from South America since the late nineteenth century. Apparently, a group of idle stevedores first took carving knives to the seeds, at a dock in Germany in 1865. Upon unloading a load of tagua nuts that had been carried as ballast, the group noticed the seeds' similarities to ivory. 

Tagua nuts have been used as an ivory substitute for buttons, dice, chess pieces, and jewelry. 

In the years that followed, the seeds were carved into buttons for U.S. military uniforms, and Victorian collectibles such as dice, chess pieces, and cane handles. Tagua's popularity ebbed a bit when synthetic materials were introduced in the 1950s, but the last couple decades have seen a rise in demand. Conservation initiatives have generated economic incentives for sustainable harvesting—according to tagua nut enthusiasts, "vegetable ivory" is an eco-friendly material and an industry that benefits farmers in South America. 

The seeds grow in large brown fruits ("mococha") about the size of grapefruits, covered in a studded husk. When the seeds are young, they are filled with a tasteless liquid. As they ripen, the liquid becomes gelatinous, and then hardens. Tagua is harvested by removing the outer pericarp and collecting the remaining endosperms, a hard, dense substance called hemicellulose. Each harvestable tagua endosperm is about 4 to 8 cm in diameter ("endosperm" is the matter inside a seed and can take different forms: the meaty white fruit of a coconut, or the porous white kernels of an exploded popcorn). 

Tagua
Phytelephas aequatorialis seed pods, seeds with and without pericarps, and polished seeds. Photo credit: seedstolove.com.

 

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.