| Phytelephas (fy-TEHL-eh-fahs) |
Male inflorescence. Photo by La Tagueria
Habitat and DistributionEndemic to W Ecuador, where it is common in moist forest up to
Stem solitary, to 15 m tall or more, but often only a few meters, about 20 cm in diameter, rough ringed from persisting leaf bases, usually with several dead leaves hanging down below the crown. Leaves 6-8 m long; pinnae 200-300 on each side, arranged in groups and spreading in different planes, or rarely regularly inserted in one plane, the central ones 60-90 cm long and 4-6 cm wide. Male inflorescence 1-2.5 m long, cream to yellow, with 300-500 crowded flower clusters. Male flowers borne on long stalks. Fruiting heads about 30 cm in diameter, with up to 12 fruits. Seeds 5-6 per fruit, about 5 cm long. (Borchsenius, F. 1998)/Palmweb. Editing by edric.
The species is unique within the genus in its long-stalked male flowers, a character which separates it from the otherwise rather similar P. tumacana O. F. Cook, distributed in parts of SW Colombia. Populations of individuals with regularly inserted pinnae held in one plane, and very small male inflorescences have been observed near San Lorenzo in NW Ecuador. (Borchsenius, F. 1998)/Palmweb.
The seeds of this South American feather-leaved palm are the 'vegetable ivory' of commerce, though considerably less important now than 100 years ago. Before the age of plastic, buttons where mass produced from the large, and extremely hard, white seed that indeed looks just like ivory. Phytelephas represents one of the most ancient branches in the palm family. Its unusual seeds are somewhat lengthy to sprout (use deep pots) but once above the ground, seedlings are pretty fast growing and easy to maintain. An interesting and rarely seen palm tree that looks best in a humid and shady place under larger trees in the tropical and subtropical garden. Two-leaf seedlings with their nuts still attached also sell very well as potted plants. (RPS.com) Cold Hardiness Zone: 10b
Comments and Curiosities
This is a dioecious genus.
Conservation: An understorey palm endemic to Ecuador and known throughout the wet coastal lowlands, where it is widely cultivated for the "vegetable ivory" of its seeds. Despite its relative abundance, the species has only been recorded once inside Ecuador's protected areas network, in the Parque Nacional Machalilla. Wild plants almost certainly also occur in the Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas. The species' potential economic value makes protecting the last wild populations a high priority, in order to preserve genetic variability. The principal threat is the overexploitation of the fruit; the infrutescence is harvested entire when ripe, leaving the tree sterile. Classified as Rare in 1997 by the IUCN (Walter and Gillett 1998). Recorded from the Ecuadorian provinces of Cañar, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Esmeraldas, Manabí, Pichincha and Los Ríos. (IUCN RedList - Near Threatened 2003.)
Uses: Thatch, vegetable ivory. Male inflorescence, Foraged by cattle. Mesocarp. Bait for fishtraps. Bait for rodents traps and to attract rodents as game. As this material can be used for handicraft, there is some local interest in cultivating the palm (about endosperm). Extraction of oil (rarely done now). Fodder for pigs and chickens. Haustorium of germinating seed. Human consuption (as snack). The palmheart is edible. The liquid inside juvenile fruits can be drunk, and is considered to be good for the kidneys. Mature seeds (Tagua Nuts) are used for carving (vegetable ivory).
The palm tree Phytelephas aequatorialis, commonly known as Ecuadorean Ivory Palm, is the main source of Ecuadorean vegetable ivory or tagua, a botanical alternative to ivory.
- Glossary of Palm Terms
- MODERN BOTANICAL LATIN
- "Just To Be Clear"
Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.
Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos.
Special thanks to Palmweb.org, Dr. John Dransfield, Dr. Bill Baker & team, for their volumes of information and photos.
Glossary of Palm Terms; Based on the glossary in Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis. 2008. Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. All images copyright of the artists and photographers (see images for credits).
Borchsenius, F. 1998. Manual to the palms of Ecuador. AAU Reports 37. Department of Systematic Botany, University of Aarhus, Denmark in collaboration with Pontificia Universidad Catalica del Ecuador.
Many Special Thanks to Ed Vaile for his long hours of tireless editing and numerous contributions.