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Vegetable Ivory

tagua nut
Tagua nuts

Decades ago I stumbled across a wonderful Internet resource called Wayne’s Word, an Online textbook of Natural History. I live in dread that this website might disappear one day, and I hope it continues to be hosted forever, because it’s fascinating.

It was here that I found out about – among many other amazing things – the existence of Vegetable Ivory. It’s the perfect substitute for the animal-derived ivory. Human greed for animal ivory has caused untold suffering to the world’s beautiful, vulnerable elephants.

But ivory grows on ivory-nut palm trees, too.

About Ivory from Ivory-palm Trees

As WP Armstrong writes,”. . . ivory-nuts contain a substance . . . that becomes so hard and dense that it can be carved and polished like elephant tusks. . . . Called “vegetable ivory,” the endosperm is used for buttons, chess pieces, dice, umbrella handles, billiard balls, and for intricate carvings in the art of scrimshaw, without endangering whales, elephants and walruses. Like wood, vegetable ivory is essentially composed of thick-walled dead cells; however, unlike grainy hardwoods it has a texture and hardness similar to ivory. In fact, vegetable ivory is remarkably dense, with a rating of roughly 2.5 on the scale of mineral hardness.”

carved tagua nuts vegetable ivory
Carved tagua nut vegetable ivory beads

I’m happy to announce that we are now offering real Vegetable Ivory, tagua nuts, for sale at the Craftsteading Store. Choose between carved or raw form for you to carve or decorate as you wish.

Meanwhile, here are WP Armstrong’s words about Vegetable Ivory. The copyright belongs entirely to him. I’ve reproduced it here to save it, if ever his marvellous website disappears.

Source: Wayne’s Word, Noteworthy Plants January 1999

Vegetable Ivory
© W.P. Armstrong (Updated 12 July 2010)

Saving Elephants & The Rain Forest

“What do African elephants and the South American rain forest have in common? They are both being eliminated from the face of the earth at an alarming rate. During the past three decades, poachers in search of ivory tusks have decimated large populations of African elephants, some by as much as 50 percent. Bans on international trade of elephant ivory have discouraged the slaughter of elephants, but the demand for polished ivory has pushed the world’s largest living land animal to the brink of extinction.

“Across the Atlantic Ocean, in a land that was once connected to the African continent, another kind of massacre is happening to the rain forest. In Central and South America this destruction amounts to about 50 acres per minute, an area roughly the size of West Virginia each year. Slash and burn agriculture is directly responsible for the extermination of hundreds of plant and animal species each year, largely for plantations of exportable products such as fast-growing pines, rubber, bananas, coffee and cattle.

“However, there is a glimmer of hope in this modern day battlefield of people against nature: A lovely Amazonian palm might help to save its rain forest relatives and the African elephant.

South American Vegetable Ivory

Several tropical American palms are known to produce vegetable ivory, but one of the most important is Phytelephas aequatorialis, also known as the ivory-nut palm. The generic name Phytelephas literally means “elephant plant.” It is derived from the Greek words phyton (plant) and elephas (elephant). The specific epithet aequatorialis refers to the equatorial region where this palm is native.

Another name used by some authors is P. macrocarpa, in which the specific epithet macrocarpa refers to the large fruits bearing ivorylike nuts. Ivory-nut palms have an extensive distribution along banks of tropical American rivers, from Panama and Colombia to Peru. They are most abundant in the Amazon Basin of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

Native habitat

“One of the best places to see the beautiful South American ivory-nut palm (Phytelephas aequatorialis), is the Napo River of Ecuador, a major tributary of the Amazon. It typically grows under large rain forest trees along streams and on wet hillsides. . . . Female palms bear clusters of large, brown fruits, the size of grapefruits or melons. Each fruit is studded with numerous woody, pointed horns and contains four or more large seeds.

“The seeds have an outer shell (seed coat) and a large white endosperm. Called “taguas” by local Indians of the Napo River, the endosperm of immature seeds is pulpy and sweet–food for people and animals of the region. Mature, dry seeds are so hard that it requires a hacksaw to cut one in half.

“Although the heavy seeds typically sink in water, some become buoyant due to internal cavities from endosperm decay. These buoyant seeds are washed downstream by torrential rains, eventually ending up in the Atlantic Ocean where they may drift to Caribbean Islands and beaches of the southeastern United States.

“The white, dried endosperm inside the seeds of ivory-nut palms contains a substance called hemicellulose that becomes so hard and dense that it can be carved and polished like elephant tusks. [The white “meat” inside coconuts and the exploded morsels of popcorn are also endosperm tissue.] A small cylindrical cavity near the outer edge of each ivory-nut was once occupied by the miniature palm embryo. This cavity can sometimes be found in carved objects.

“Called “vegetable ivory,” the endosperm is used for buttons, chess pieces, dice, umbrella handles, billiard balls, and for intricate carvings in the art of scrimshaw, without endangering whales, elephants and walruses. Like wood, vegetable ivory is essentially composed of thick-walled dead cells; however, unlike grainy hardwoods it has a texture and hardness similar to ivory. In fact, vegetable ivory is remarkably dense, with a rating of roughly 2.5 on the scale of mineral hardness. [Compare this rating with 3.5 for a copper penny and 10 for diamond.] Ivory-nuts can be polished in a stone tumbler, as you would polish agates and quartz, or by using tin oxide and a buffing wheel.

“Like elephant ivory, the seeds can be fashioned into all sorts of beautiful objects, from chess pieces, buttons and pendants to knife handles and belt buckles with intricate scrimshaw designs. The workability, density and fine-grained texture is also similar to true ivory.

A valuable cargo

Ivory-nuts have been exported from South America for more than a hundred years. In fact, near the turn of the century Colombia and Ecuador were exporting nearly 40,000 tons of the precious nuts to the United States and Europe. According to an article in International Wildlife (1991) by Anne Underwood, a ship sailing from South America to Germany in 1865 carried a load of tagua nuts as ballast. Upon arriving at dockside in Hamburg, curious stevedores began playing with the taguas and noticed their ivorylike characteristics. For many years the buttons on uniforms worn by U.S. soldiers came from ivory-nuts. Like so many natural dyes and textile fibers, vegetable ivory has been replaced by less expensive synthetics. By l950, the discovery of new plastic polymers put an end to the demand for tagua nuts.

But what about the demand for elephant ivory? Vegetable ivory is a very desirable substitute. Like elephant ivory, it is completely natural and it comes from a marvelous wild creature. Unlike elephants which must die for their precious ivory, tagua palms are a renewable resource; as long as their native habitat is preserved and sufficient seeds are left to perpetuate the palms. A single female tagua palm may produce up to 50 pounds of nuts in a year, that’s roughly the amount of ivory in an average African elephant tusk. The elephant, however, yields its ivory only once while the palm produces nuts year after year.

Other Vegetable Ivory Palms

There are several other palm species from distant rain forests with large, extremely hard seeds that are also used for vegetable ivory. The Caroline ivory-nut palm (Metroxylon amicorum) is native to the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. The unusual one-seeded fruits are covered with numerous shiny brown scales and superficially resemble a closed pine cone.

Another source of vegetable ivory is Hyphaene ventricosa, a beautiful African palm native to islands and banks of the Zambezi River in the vicinity of Victoria Falls. Although the seeds are smaller than the Caroline ivory-nut palm, the bony endosperm is just as hard. The fruits of Hyphaene palms contain a sweet, juicy outer pulp that tastes like gingerbread and is the source of the name, gingerbread palms. Unlike most other palms, they have an unusual branching growth habit resulting in forked trunks.

Fruits and seeds from two distant species of vegetable ivory palms: Metroxylon amicorum from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia (A) and Hyphaene ventricosa from the Zambezi River of Africa (B). The seeds are so hard that it takes a hacksaw blade to cut them in half.

Note: A closely related species of Metroxylon called the natangura palm (M. warburgii) is native to Vanuatu & the Solomon Islands.


Most consumers of ivory would probably buy jewelry and carved articles made from vegetable ivory. If their greed for ivory is based on its rarity and exotic origin, then vegetable ivory should be equally acceptable. This is especially true considering the endangered status of tropical rain forests where ivory-nut palms grow. Very few ivory lovers could tell whether beautiful rings, necklaces, belt buckles and carved knife handles are made from the modified dentin of enlarged elephant incisors or the dried hemicellulose of palm seeds. The only drawback of ivory-nuts is their size. Average seeds are about two inches (5 cm) long, and this would limit the size of articles made from them. However, milled nuts can be fused into a larger, solid mass with modern bonding cements under heat and pressure.

Protecting rainforests

Another ecological incentive for using vegetable ivory is that renewed trade in tagua nuts could help protect endangered rain forests in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. According to a Massachusetts-based environmental group called Cultural Survival, natural rain forest products such as vegetable ivory can generate up to five times the income of banana plantations and cattle ranches. In fact, two California-based companies, Patagonia Inc. and Smith & Hawken (closed in 2009), use(d) buttons made of tagua rather than plastic on their clothing products.

Meanwhile the tropical forests and their inhabitants are rapidly being destroyed. Who knows what biological secrets may reside in the genes of these vanishing species–perhaps cures for many tragic human diseases.

The devastation of the earth’s tropical rain forests is analogous to a worldwide burning of libraries without ever reading any of the books. Maybe tagua nuts and other vegetable ivory palms can help save at least a part of these beautiful rain forests before it’s too late, and at the same time help to preserve one of the most magnificent mammals that ever roamed the earth.

(c) WP Armstrong

2 thoughts on “Vegetable Ivory

  1. Wheb creating jewelry 40 years ago, I bought vegetable ivory for making jewelry because I did not want to buy elephant tusks or other sources of ivory. I’m now at an age (80 yrs old) that I no longer make jewelry, but need a new bed. – Really, I’m trying to sell things I own that will make what’s left of my life more comfortable.
    I am looking to sell these 23 +/- grams of Vegetable Ivory.

    Lots of this technological media is a baffllement to me so I don’t know how to go about selling these ‘gems.’

    1. Hi Sarah,
      You’re clearly a good person who values the lives and well-being of elephants. Please feel free to post your contact details here (eg. mailing address, PO Box) and the price you want, so that potential buyers can contact you. But be wary of scammers – we here at Craftsteading have no control over any potential customers! We suggest you ask to get paid before you send the items. Sally.

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