The Ivory that Grows on Trees in Ecuador

Found in swampy regions of the tropical rainforests of Ecuador, Tagua palms grow up to eight meters high and produce seeds or nuts that have come to be known as ‘vegetal ivory’. The scientific name for the palm is Phytelephas, meaning ‘plant elephant’, referring to the hard white seeds it produces. Enterprising artisans in Ecuador are making use of this renewable resource to create a range of decorative and practical items which are light-weight, durable, eco-friendly, versatile, and organic, while supporting conservation and fair trade practices.

Each year a single palm produces around fifteen large balls consisting of a hard shell with thick thorns protruding from it. Each of these balls contains up to twenty compartments, which in turn typically contain six nuts averaging 6cm in size, with some as large as 10cm. These edible nuts have a brown skin with white cellulose pulp inside. When left out to dry in the sun, the white pulp hardens and changes color until it looks and feels very much like the ivory so many elephants are killed for by poachers.

While tagua crafts may appear novel to most people, they have been around for a very long time. Many items which are now made of plastic were once crafted from tagua nuts. History reveals that a ship sailing to Germany from South America in 1865 made use of tagua nuts for ballast. Upon docking in Hamburg, dockworkers noted the nuts had characteristics similar to ivory, and tagua soon became one of the leading products exported by Ecuador to Europe. By the turn of the century it is estimated that combined exports of tagua nuts from Colombia and Ecuador to Europe was in the region of 40,000 tons annually. Dice, dominoes, chess pieces, knobs of walking canes, umbrella handles, jewelry, toys and buttons are some of the items previously made from this amazing product. That all changed with the invention of synthetic plastic, which took the place of tagua in many products.

A renewed interest in the environment and eco-friendly products has resulted in a growing demand for tagua handicrafts, particularly jewelry and decorative items. The nuts are skillfully carved and dyed to produce an amazing range of products – truly an eco-friendly gift option for visitors to Ecuador to take home as a memento of a visit to this fascinating South American country.