|Fruiting tagua palm (unknown species)|
Ruiz & Pav.
6, see text
 Elephantusia Willd.
Phytelephas is a genus containing six species of palms (family Arecaceae), occurring from southern Panama along the Andes to Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. They are commonly known as ivory palms, ivory-nut palms or tagua palms; their scientific name means "plant elephant". This and the first two of the common names refer to the very hard white endosperm of their seeds (tagua nuts or jarina seeds), which resembles elephant ivory.
They are medium-sized to tall palms reaching up to 20 m tall, with pinnate leaves. The "nut" is covered with pericarp, which gets removed by animals. The kernel is covered with a brown, flaky skin and shaped like a small avocado, roughly 4-8 cm in diameter.
Given trade restrictions in elephant ivory as well as animal welfare concerns, ivory palm endosperm is often used as a substitute for elephant ivory today, and traded as vegetable ivory, palm ivory, corozo or tagua. When dried out, it can be carved just like elephant ivory; it is often used for beads, buttons, figurines and jewelry, and can be dyed. More recently, palm ivory has been used in the production of bagpipes.
Vegetable ivory stimulates local economies in South America, provides an alternative to cutting down rainforests for farming, and prevents elephants from being killed for the ivory in their tusks.
In Ecuador, the Ecuadorean Ivory Palm (P. aequatorialis) is the species whose kernels are widely harvested. The Large-fruited Ivory Palm (P. macrocarpa) is the ivory palm native to Brazil, and most internationally-traded palm ivory is derived from this species. The Colombian Ivory Palm (P. schottii) and P. tenuicaulis, both formerly included in P. macrocarpa, are the usual source of the product in Colombia. The other two species are quite rare and have a restricted range; they are not used for tagua production on a significant scale.
The kernels are picked up from the ground after the ripe fruit has detached from the tree and forest animals have taken care of the pericarp, or harvested when ripe and the pericarp manually removed. As the nut shrinks when it hardens a small hollow cavity can form in the centre. It is often not possible to know whether the inside of the nut will have a small cavity in the centre until it is cut into. Therefore, when carving, it is common to either incorporate the hole or cavity into carvings or not carve deep enough to reach a potential cavity.
In their native range, these palms are also used as a source of food and construction wood.
List of species
As of 2004, the following species were considered valid:
- Phytelephas aequatorialis – Ecuadorean Ivory Palm
- Phytelephas macrocarpa Ruiz & Pav. – Large-fruited Ivory Palm
- Phytelephas schottii H.Wendl. – Colombian Ivory Palm (formerly considered a subspecies of P. macrocarpa)
- Phytelephas seemannii
- Phytelephas tenuicaulis (Barfod) A.J.Hend. (formerly considered a subspecies of P. macrocarpa)
- Phytelephas tumacana
- Govaerts et al. (2004)
- Govaerts, R.; Dransfield, J.; Zona, S.; Hodel, D.R. & Henderson, A. (2004): World Checklist of Arecaceae – Phytelephas. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 2008-DEC-24.
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