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Tagua Nut- Vegetable Ivory

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

We knew nothing of this amazing material until we came to Ecuador!

The more we read into it, the more fascinated we became...and now we are eager to get our hands on some to create something with! The first person who told us about this happened to work at a local store here by the beach. If you know where the bakery is (closest road to the beach), keep walking past it away from the river and make the first right. Their store is second down the street on your left (to the left of the shop selling paraphernalia and jewelry). We will first go into the background information on what we found about this material than get into our hands-on learning experiences.

Tagua (Tah-gwaa) Nut or Vegetable Ivory are seeds of palm trees but only certain palm trees namely the Ecuadorian Ivory Palm here in Ecuador. They are in the genus Phytelephas which literally means “elephant plant” and in the species Aequatorialis (Scientific Name: Phytelephas Aequatorialis). These trees can grow up to 15 feet and need to mature between 8 to 15 years before producing seeds. Luckily once producing it could produce for up to decades. ‘Tagua’ the word is not limited to just Ecuadorian Ivory Palm but covers the general term referring to a palm’s nut or palm ivory. In other countries, they can be referred to as Binroji (Japan), Corozo/Corozzo (Britain), Steennoot (Dutch), Palmivoor (Colombia), Steinnuss (Germany), and Coquilla (Brazil). The nut is created from hardening white endosperm and once hardened, they resemble animal ivory and thus gaining its nickname as “vegetable ivory”. It also became a great eco-friendly and sustainable way to replace animal ivory and thus looked highly upon. No harm comes to the tree when it is time to harvest the Tagua Nuts as they fall to the ground when they are ready.

This material has been well used in buttons since the 1880s where Rochester, New York was the center of manufacturing. Before plastic became a common material for buttons in production, they had about 20% of all buttons made of vegetable ivory made in the US. A 1906 page describes “The ivory buttons are classed among the most artistic and durable in the market and are made from what is called vegetable ivory which grows in South American forests.”(2), well used and appreciated at the time. Not only were they used in buttons but in knife handles, dice, figurines, and chess pieces.

The nuts begin as a liquid endosperm that hardens as it ages ranging from about one to two inches in diameter. Those that have tasted the liquid says depending on what stage you drink it, it can be described as a liquid or as a jelly. An explorer noted that it tasted “slightly sweet and very watery, vaguely reminiscent of coconut water.”(3). Once hardened, taking about three months drying in the sun, it becomes quite dense and a little too hard to carve with a knife. Most artisans today use lathes and handheld rotary tools (such as a Dremel) to hacksaws and files. Their color is typically white with a marbled grain structure but you can find caramel to toffee colorants as well.

This material can be dyed in various colors and is advertised in products with very eye-catching shades.

Each nut is formed within a lumpy, woody, and spiky ball known as mocochas that hangs directly onto the palm trunk. The inside is divided into approximately 20 chambers where several dozen seeds are embedded. The mocochas can be harvested with an ax or machete, but usually the nuts are harvested after the mocochas fall from the tree and are broken open naturally by the wildlife. A single tree will produce hundreds of nuts a year while carrying about 12 mocochas a year. As mentioned before, harvesting is easy on both the tree and the workers as the seeds will drop to the ground when they are ready. This helps to protect the rainforest and fight against deforestation while providing sustainable materials for the locals to use for generations.

I’d recommend watching this video to get a general coverage of their process:

Now, this is our journey to discover and explore this material for ourselves! All images are our own from our travels.

This interest was also piqued thanks to Amelia and JP who have lived in Ecuador for a few years now. They had come across a flowering plant on one of their walks posted on Instagram. After some looking into, John and I noticed that it was male flowers produced by the male palms trees. We went out to search for our own Tagua Nuts a few weeks later and started noticing a few of them now fallen to the ground. We were close, but no seeds on a male tree. For the first thirty minutes, we were beginning to be disheartened, wondering if maybe they had already been harvested or mostly growing on private property in this area.

Soon we got the hang of noticing them. Some were still pretty high up and we couldn’t reach. Poking them with sticks, we can definitely attest they are heavy and hold tightly to the tree. It’s a good thing that harvesting them is an easy step. About an hour into our walk, we got the hang of finding the trees and starting to dig around the bases for fallen seeds. Many were caught in the trunk which was better!

The first image above, on the left, is where you would normally look to see if there are any spiky fruit bundles. If they did, they could even drop down into those wooden sheaths that surround the base of the large fronds coming up from the top of the tree. Those can be seen in the second and third images. Can you see the nut in those pictures waiting to be plucked? Some trees had been taken over or merged into other species of trees which can still produce seeds.

The bottom first image shows what you would be looking for with an image on its own to show the size. It weighs quite a bit and would greatly recommend just waiting for the seeds to fall or picking up what has already fallen.

After a satisfying trek, we headed home with a good amount to work with. First, we checked through each one to make sure there are no insect holes or rot. Both of those options would not be allowed through customs and could ruin the other nuts around it. As you can see in the third picture, there was a hole in it so we had to toss it out. Those that we keep get a brief wipe down/scrub with a dry towel to remove whatever may be clinging onto the outside shell. We didn't know to look for these when we first picked them up and will be more conscious of which ones we bring back next time.

These were in various stages; The first stage still has the hard shell and a ‘bump’ that attaches the seed to the pod. Below you can see that wiping some of them down, they start to look like dry river rocks. A great way for them to hide amongst the dead leaves and avoid harvesters.

This next stage requires the cracking of that hard outer shell to reveals a more fibrous, dry, and peeling layer underneath. This is typically the layer that is the hardest to carve from the pile we found. Carving requires much smaller cuts with multiple attempts in the same spot to reveal the ivory center. To see if the shell is loose, check if you can hear the seed rattle inside when shaken or tapped firmly on solid ground. At this point, if you hear it rattle inside, it might either be well dried or it may have been eaten by bugs. Cracking into it helps confirm or deny this. The outer shell can be removed with a knife to crack the shell, or held firmly and whacked solidly against a smooth hard surface. It cracks similarly to a really stiff and wooden eggshell.

As you can see in the first image above, those that are ready will split allowing you to pry it open by hand or by a knife. The video will show different sounds of nuts in their various stages. Turn up the volume and see if you can predict which ones are ready to be cracked and which ones need more time to dry! If you ever crack one open and use the knife, and the nut has mold (any white and/or green fuzz usually starting in dots), toss out immediately and sanitize your workspace before you continue. Spreading of spores is always bad and can impact the integrity of the nearby nuts.

You can see the seed inside is shrunken and pulled away from that hard outer shell. This dry and fibrous coating is the minimum carving layer you need to be able to use a knife. Below is a picture of the various cracked seed results. Some have been drying longer than others. I just love how this picture turned out! So many little variations!

This step should be a 'no-duh' step but sometimes we forget: take out the stem! Finding it is actually pretty easy and gets easier as you carve down to the ivory layer. From this stage, you just need to find the bump that is not necessarily at the height or center of the seed. If you use your knife, it should squish in indicating you found the hole. The first image below shows best that bump that holds the stem

When it starts growing, the stem will look like this:

In this picture, we made our assumptions, based on the outer layer, of their level of hardness (based on length of dry time). Upper left is, what we assume, is the hardest the cut into, followed to the right of that line and the second line ending at the bottom right which is what we assume is the easiest to cut into.

Tagua Nut three had a small hole we had popped open to get the stem out. You can kind of glimpse the edges and see that there seems to be a slightly thick layer separating the ivory center from its shell.

Tagua Nuts eight and nine, shown below, had been started in their carving. The skin layer looks almost as thin as a potato peel and can be easily shaven off.

There seems to be a correlation between the smoothness of the nut’s surface underneath the outer shell, the softer it is to carve and the younger the seed may be. After they have been carved down to this point, we give them a quick bath in alcohol to sanitize them and kill any possible organism that could still be growing on them. Then laying them out to dry slowly which is a little difficult to do without the sun (it's been cloudy the past week) and humid (which can affect the drying time).

We had found a few in different shades ranging from caramel to toffee shade. Aren’t they lovely? We are both really excited to be able to curve these further into pendants or figurines once we get back to the states and back to our tools!






Thanks for stopping by!

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