Tagua Nut Basics: Vegetable Ivory in the Amazon Rainforest

Tagua, also known as vegetable ivory, grows in tropical rainforests in South America, from southern Panama, along the Andes to Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. We have seen tagua palms growing along the gorgeous Napo River in Ecuador, a major tributary of the Amazon River. Tagua grows under larger rainforest trees along rivers, streams and on damp hillsides.

Tagua Nut Palms

Tagua grows on medium-sized palm trees, reaching up to 20 m in height. The trees are commonly known as ivory palms, ivory-nut palms or tagua palms. They are called “Taguas” by the local Indians of the Napo River area. In Ecuador the species most widely harvested is the Ecuadorian Ivory Palm.  The scientific name is Phytelephas which means “plant elephant.”

An Ecuadorian Ivory Palm takes about 15 years to produce its first harvest. From there, the palm can continue to bear fruit for up to 100 years.  A mature palm will produce about 15 to 16 heads, 3 times a year.

Tagua palms come in female and male trees. The females grow clusters of large, dark brown fruits, about the size of melons.  The fruit is round, up to 50 cm in diameter. Each fruit is studded with woody horns and contains 4 or more large seeds. The seeds have an outer seed coat with white endosperm inside. The immature fruit is a tasteless liquid. When it starts to ripen it turns into a sweet milky pulpy substance, providing a food source for the people and animals of the area. If the seeds are left for about 9 months, they become so hard that a saw is needed to cut one into pieces.

Seeds/Nuts like Ivory

Once dry, the very hard white seeds resemble elephant ivory. The white kernel is covered with a brown flaky skin. Very often this flaky skin is incorporated into carving and jewelry designs – giving a very authentic, organic and original look to the finished piece. The seeds themselves are shaped like small avocadoes, roughly 4-8 cm in diameter.

Often as the nut hardens, it shrinks a little and a small hollow cavity can form in the center. The artist has the choice to work around this cavity, but often will incorporate the cavity into their work to give the item more interest and highlight its organic nature. 

Tagua is an excellent substitute for elephant ivory.  When dried out, it can be carved and polished to a high shine just like elephant ivory. Its character, color and density are all similar to ivory. It’s often called ‘vegetable ivory’ for just this reason.  It’s very dense, with a rating of 2.5 on a density scale - compare that to 3.5 for a copper penny.

Today tagua is most commonly used for beads, buttons, figurines and jewelry.  It has even been used recently in making bagpipes and guitar picks.

Often tagua is dyed. It takes dye easily and permanently without the need for binders or other chemicals that may run off into the environment. In Ecuador, in particular, often organic vegetable dyes are used. Polishing is usually done with a stone tumbler or a buffing wheel, the same as semi-precious stones like agates or quartz.

In Ecuador tagua is skillfully carved. Like ivory, tagua nuts can be beautifully polished and are as hard as any animal-based ivory or bone. Tagua nuts also have a natural organic texture which is highlighted when sliced and dyed.

Tagua Nut History

Tagua was initially used in colonial times by the Spanish settlers in South America. It was used for making a variety of useful things from walking stick hands, napkin holders, combs, chess pieces, piano keys, and letter openers.

Tagua has been exported from South American for well over a century. Around 1900, S American was exporting approximately 40,000 tons to the US and Europe. An early use of tagua was to make buttons, with Rochester, NY, being a center of tagua button manufacturing. Before plastic buttons, about 20% of the buttons manufactured in the US were made of tagua. For many years, the uniform buttons on US soldiers came from tagua. In the 1920’s, tagua exports brought $5 million annually to Ecuador.

The invention of plastic reduced the popularity of tagua and high quality items began to be made from animal ivory. By the 1950’s, the rise of plastic had also put an end to the demand for tagua. The use of plastic and animal ivory would come to have significant detrimental impacts on the environment which brings us back, a century later, to rethinking our use of a sustainable substance like tagua.

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