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What is Tagua (vegetable ivory)?

Saturday, August 30th, 2008


Tagua (”tah-gwa”), also called ‘ivory nut’ or ‘vegetable ivory’, are primarily the dried seedpod of the Tagua Palm tree (Phytelephas macrocarpa) which grows in tropical rainforests of South America.

Family: Palmae

Division: Magnoliophyta comprising flowering plants that produce seeds enclosed in an ovary; in some systems considered a class (Angiospermae) and in others a division (Magnoliophyta or Anthophyta)

Botanical name: Phytelephas Macrocarpa Palmae

There are several species of tagua (tä´gwä) (Tah gwa) palms. In average it is a small understory tree of 20 to 30 feet that grows in damp areas of moist tropical forests of South America. The tree produces a vegetable ivory nut called Tagua nut. The Tagua nuts grow in large armoured clusters with each cluster containing many nuts.  They range in size but on average each Tagua is about the size of a walnut. Chemically they are pure cellulose and before the nut matures contain a milky liquid in the centre. When ripe the nuts fall to the ground and are gathered and dried from four to eight weeks after which they become extremely hard.

Forest animals such as agoutis and squirrels eat Tagua nuts. The cellular structure and grain is similar to that of elephant or animal ivory, but is more dense and flexible (In one year a Tagua palm produces the same amount of “ivory” as one female elephant In the late eighteen hundreds up through World War II, before the invention of plastic, this ivory nut was used to make some of the finest buttons in the clothing industry. Some were even used on United States Army uniforms. Other common items such as jewelery, dice, chess pieces and cane handles were made out of Tagua nuts.  In fact, some expensive “ivory” pieces from the Victorian era were actually made from Tagua nuts.  For close to eighty years the ivory nut was a commodity of global importance and factories on three continents used to manufacture articles of utility and luxury. The creation of synthetics killed the world ivory nut market. The vegetable ivory nut has undergone a come back because of the slaughter and near extinction of various mammals that are hunted for ivory, e.g., elephants, whales, walrus and other species.

In addition to protecting animal ivory, tagua products help preserve tropical rainforests by providing a sustainable income for forest gathers. The sale of tagua products also helps forest peoples make the transition to a cash economy when they are unable to survive in a completely traditional lifestyle. The tagua nuts, however, are harvested by hand without harming the tree.

The indigenous people of South America used Tagua to represent the feminine because of its great magnet-like romantic energy. Each member of the tribe was given a Tagua pendant to wear around his or her neck. The natives believed that persons wearing Tagua would live in harmony and always be loved by their family and friends. Seedpods are peeled, sliced or carved and dyed in different colors. Tagua jewellery and watches are made from those dried and polished seedpods.

More Information About Tagua

Jewelry Made from Tagua