The Ivory nut palm (Phytelephas macrocarpa Ruiz & Pav., 1798) is an arboreal species belonging to the Arecaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Species P. macrocarpa.
The terms are synonymous:
– Elephantusia macrocarpa (Ruiz & Pav.) Willd.;
– Elephantusia microcarpa (Ruiz & Pav.) Willd.;
– Phytelephas brachelus O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas brachinus O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas brevipes O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas cornutus O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas karstenii O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas longiflora O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas macrocarpa subsp. macrocarpa;
– Phytelephas macrocarpa subsp. schottii (H.Wendl.) Barfod;
– Phytelephas microcarpa H.Karst.;
– Phytelephas microcarpa Ruiz & Pav.;
– Phytelephas pittieri O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas schottii H.Wendl.;
– Phytelephas seemannii O.F.Cook;
– Phytelephas seemannii subsp. brevipes (O.F.Cook) Barfod;
– Phytelephas seemannii subsp. seemannii;
– Yarina microcarpa (Ruiz & Pav.) O.F.Cook.
The term Phytelephas comes from the Greek terms “φυτόν” (phytόn), i.e. plant and “ἐλέφας” (elephas), i.e. elephant, but also ivory, with reference to the endosperm used as a substitute for ivory.
The specific epithet macrocarpa comes from the Greek words “μακρός” (makrόs), i.e. large and “καρπός” (karpόs), i.e. fruit, in reference to the size of the fruit.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Phytelephas macrocarpa is a plant native to an area that includes Bolivia, northwestern Brazil and Peru, and which is found in the plains, in western Amazonia, and in Colombia south of the Amazonian trapezium (near the Amazon River) and Venezuela.
In detail it is found in Colombia in the Pacific plains, mainly near the coast, from Urabá and Darién to the surroundings of López de Micay (Cauca, Alto Sinú, Magdalena Medio (Antioquia, Boyacá, Cesar, Norte de Santander, Santander and Cundinamarca, near Yacopí) and the Alto Magdalena (Huila and Tolima), south of Guadalupe, on the border with Caquetá and around San Agustín; the Catatumbo basin east of Ábrego; a small isolated population (and perhaps already disappeared) is found in the Cauca river basin, between Corozal and Miravalles, south of the municipality of La Victoria (Cauca Valley).
Its habitat is that of rainforests below 300 m, but reaching up to just over 1700 m in the upper Magdalena, in Huila. This palm grows on temporarily floodable terraces along the banks of rivers, where it forms dense palm groves, called taguales. Sometimes it also grows on slopes, where it generally does not develop a stem above the ground.
Phytelephas macrocarpa is a dioecious palm with a solitary stem, underground or prostrate from the ground and partially erect, 1-4 meters high and 25-30 cm in diameter, with the male plants which are usually taller than the female ones; it rarely appears tufted.
It has pinnate, erect or slightly arched leaves, up to about 6 m long, composed of 50-70 leaflets per side, linear, pointed, regularly distributed along the rachis in the same plane, up to about 90 cm long in the median part and up to 5 cm, shiny dark green above, lighter below.
The inflorescences form between the leaves; the male ones are made up of a cylindrical, fleshy spadix, about 70 cm long, bearing white, sessile (without peduncle) flowers, about 1.6 cm long, gathered in groups of four, with 25-250 stamens in each group ; the female ones arise at ground level, are globose, compact, with grouped flowers about 22 cm long; the flowers, both male and female, give off a penetrating odor.
The fruits are grouped in a rounded mass, up to 50 cm in diameter, covered by dark brown woody plates with central pointed protrusions.
Inside each single fruit there are four to six, rarely up to nine, seeds; these are ellipsoid or kidney-shaped and 2-6 cm long.
Phytelephas macrocarpa is a single-stemmed, dioecious palm that is used in various ways locally as food. Hard seed is a form of plant ivory, called tagua, used in crafts. The seeds of this and various other species are commonly collected in the wild and exported in large quantities from Panama and South America, to be used as substitutes for ivory: a great variety of articles are obtained from them.
It is also a very ornamental plant, but little used for this purpose even if it has strongly scented flowers; it requires a tropical, and marginally subtropical, humid climate, with high temperatures throughout the year, even if it seems to be able to resist, exceptionally and for a very short time, temperatures close to 0 °C; on the other hand, it is not demanding regarding the soil, as long as there is ample availability of water, and cannot tolerate dry periods.
From a pedological point of view, it prefers moist soil and a warm, sheltered position. It is a slow growing plant that can take 7 to 25 years from a young seedling before it begins to produce fruit.
It is a dioecious species so both male and female forms must be cultivated to produce fruit and seeds.
The plant reproduces by seed, in sandy substrates, which germinates in 3-6 months in the best conditions, but can also take a few years.
Customs and Traditions –
Phytelephas macrocarpa is a plant known by various common names, including: corozo nut, ivory nut palm, ivory palm, tagua palm (English); ivoire végétal (French); ivory palm (Italian); jarina (Portuguese – Brazil); cabeza de negro, chapi, corozo, palma de marfil, polo ponta, yarina (Spanish); Elfenbeinpalme, Steinnusspalme (German).
The first records of the production of this palm date back to 1840-1841, when it constituted a negligible fraction of Colombian exports. Beginning in the 1860s, harvesting resumed and became one of the major forest products of both Colombia and Ecuador. In the 1920s, during the peak of trade, exports from Ecuador amounted to about 25,000 tons and about 20% of all buttons produced in the United States came from this palm. At about the same time, exports from Colombia declined due to the increasing use of plastic, disappearing altogether by 1935. Ecuador followed after 1941, and the trade in this palm had all but disappeared by 1945. The industry, however, did not it never died out and survived in Riobamba in Ecuador and Chiquinquirá in Colombia, as a minor company that produced souvenirs and exported to Japan, West Germany and Italy.
In 1990, a Conservation International initiative began connecting P. macrocarpa producers in rainforest areas with international markets. Clothing companies in the United States supported the program by purchasing an initial batch of one million buttons, while other companies soon joined the program.
The aid is invested in conservation and sustainable development programs in the production regions, namely the Santiago River basin in Ecuador and the Pacific coast of northwestern Colombia. Community involvement in palm harvesting promises an attractive economic arrangement that leads to forest conservation by the local population. Additionally, global aversion to the elephant ivory trade has led to renewed interest in the sustainable resource of plant ivory. Thus this palm is becoming increasingly sought after for small carvings and for use in jewelry such as watches, earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Walnut is a nutritious food when ground.
This palm is well known for the white and extremely hard endosperm of the ripe fruits which is used, as a substitute for ivory of animal origin, for the production of buttons (particularly before the advent of plastic materials), handicrafts, costume jewelery etc.; the refractive index, hardness and shine are similar to those of ivory, while the density is lower, around 1.4 g/cm3. Vegetable ivory still represents an important economic resource for local populations today, especially after the ban on animal ivory. The plant locally also has other uses, the immature endosperm is consumed both in the liquid state, as a drink, and in the semi-solid, gelatinous state, and is considered a delicacy; the leaves are used by indigenous populations as a covering for homes.
The endosperm of growing fruits is a delicacy, consumable in a liquid or gelatinous state. Then it becomes extremely hard and provides, as mentioned, a vegetable ivory that is very useful for artisanal work.
The endosperm of the dried ripe seed, very hard and white to cream in colour, is in fact worked by artisans to make various objects, such as buttons and decorative objects. The seed of this species and others of the same genus, Phytelephas, is known as “vegetable ivory”.
The leaves are used to cover houses and huts.
When ripe, the fruit that has formed on the female tree falls apart and the woody epicarp covered in thorns disintegrates, letting the nuts fall to the ground. Their orange fleshy mesocarp covering is eaten by rodents, and some nuts are buried in hiding places. The nuts are collected from the ground and taken for processing in bags or baskets.
From an ecological point of view it is an important plant for some insects. Large weevil larvae, similar and perhaps identical to Rhynchophorus palmarum, burrow into palm stems and are vectors of a nematode, Bursaphelenchus cocophilus, which afflicts cultivated palms. Various species of bees, beetles and flies visit the flowers, but beetles are considered the most effective pollinators.
Preparation Method –
Phytelephas macrocarpa is a palm whose main use is the vegetable ivory of its seeds. This is hard and dense with an attractive cream color that, when polished, compares favorably to real ivory.
Tagua softens when soaked, melting completely if immersed in water for long periods, but recovering its hardness when dried. The contents of the immature fruit are liquid, sweet in taste and are used as a refreshing drink. The fronds are used as a covering for the natives’ huts. Walnuts are easily polished and dyed and are used for a wide variety of items. Its most profitable use was for the production of buttons for the clothing industry.
Among edible uses, the apical bud is cooked and eaten as a vegetable; however the use of this shoot leads to the death of the tree as it is unable to form lateral branches.
The seed tissue of the immature fruit is liquid: it is used as a refreshing drink and has a sweet taste.
The fruit has been used as a coffee substitute.
The leaves are sometimes used in the manufacture of household articles, probably woven into mats, etc. and to make baskets.
The leaves are used as roofing material for native huts.
A fiber obtained from the plant is used for brooms, torches, fire starters or blowgun cleaners.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora d’Italia, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Attention: Pharmaceutical applications and food uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; we therefore decline any responsibility for their use for healing, aesthetic or food purposes.