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What is an Ivory Palm?

In Africa, carvers who have traditionally worked with elephant ivory have turned to the ivory palm to create beautiful traditional crafts.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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An ivory palm is a palm tree which yields small, dense white nuts made from a material that closely resembles elephant ivory. The nuts are usually about the size of a hen's egg, although this varies depending on which type of ivory palm is under discussion, and the white substance is hemicellulose, often called vegetable ivory when it is being sold. People who are concerned about elephant poaching encourage the use of vegetable ivory, which is very difficult to distinguish from true ivory. Individuals working to save the rain forest also encourage the production and sale of vegetable ivory products, creating economic value for living rain forest plants.

The tree most commonly used to make vegetable ivory is Phytelephas macrocarpa, an ivory palm from South America common in Brazil and Peru. This type of ivory palm has no stem or trunk, instead emerging directly from the ground. The palm nuts cluster along the ground and can be harvested annually for vegetable ivory. Seeds from this palm are also sometimes identified as Corosso or Tagua nut. In Micronesia and the South Pacific, another type of Ivory Palm grows: Metroxylon amicorum, the Caroline Ivory Nut Palm. In Africa, Hyphaene ventricosa provides yet another source of vegetable ivory. The nuts of this palm have a sweet and juicy outer pulp which reminds some consumers of gingerbread, leading to the common name of Gingerbread palm.

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Many traditionally carved products in Africa and South America are made with nuts from the ivory palm, because they are a renewable resource and they are much cheaper than true ivory. Highly educated consumers may be able to differentiate between ivories of vegetable and animal origin, but in general the two are difficult to tell apart, as they are both creamy white, dense, and easy to polish. In South America, the ivory palm is only one of many useful plants to be found in the rain forest, and is often cited by conservationists as a good reason for preserving the rain forest. In Africa, carvers who have traditionally worked with ivory of elephant origin have turned to the ivory palm to create beautiful traditional crafts while preserving their elephant populations.

Carvings from ivory palm nuts are somewhat more limited than traditional ivory because of the size of the nuts. However, some artisans have created glue and seamless joins so that they can create much larger carved pieces from multiple joined ivory palm nuts. Especially large carvings should be handled with care so that they do not crack along the joins. Just like elephant ivory, vegetable ivory can also dry out and become brittle. If worn on the flesh, the natural oils of the skin will keep it in good condition, but otherwise it should be wiped with a damp cloth and oiled periodically to maintain a beautiful look.

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ShellM89
Post 2

@jlknight65 – I appreciate the information about oiling vegetable ivory, too. Our son spent some time in Micronesia where the Caroline Ivory Nut Palm grows. He brought home some beautifully carved pieces.

Although it is jewelry, he bought the pieces as keepsakes so he doesn’t wear them. I asked him about oiling it and he wasn’t aware that it would need it, either.

After not being able to find any specific information about the care of these pieces we thought maybe a very light rubbing of organic coconut oil would be good since it is natural and has no additives.

I would love to know if anyone has more specific information.

jlknight65
Post 1

I have a few, small decorative pieces of vegetable ivory carvings and I can personally say it is difficult to tell from elephant ivory, however, I didn’t know that it needs periodic oiling to keep it from cracking.

Is there any specific type of oil that would be best to use on vegetable ivory? I tried finding more information on the care of vegetable ivory but I was not successful.

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