It may look like a coffee bean, chocolate, Jordan almond or caramel, but the tagua nut is actually the endosperm of a seed that comes from the palm species Phytelephas aequatorialis aka. Palandra aequatorialis, or the species Phytelephas macrocarpa. The locals call it cade (pronounced ka-day). The Phytelephas species are found in the lush lowlands of Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. In Ecuador, the primary tagua producing species are P. aequatorialis and P. macrocarpa. P. aequatorialis produces tagua year round, but the seed of the Phytelephas genus, in general, tends to be most abundant during the dry season, June-November. Along the coast between Santa Elena and Salango, where many of the seeds are harvested and the tagua crafts are made, the “dry” season is often accompanied by a light mist, garua in Spanish. Most cade prefer humid and shady areas, but the P. macrocarpa tolerates a dryer climate.
Phytelephas comes from the Greek words phyton, which means plant, and elephas meaning elephant. The white hard seeds of this genus are also known as vegetable ivory, a sustainable alternative to animal ivory. The ivories’ characteristics differ primarily in that tagua softens when soaked in water for long periods of time, while animal ivory stays hard. During Victorian times, tagua was used to manufacture decorated thimbles, dice and jewelry. Before plastic buttons became popular, tagua was a key material in the button industry. In the late 1800’s, factories in London and Birmingham imported two to three million nuts annually. During the 1920’s, 20% of all buttons made in the United States were made out of tagua. Today, Patagonia, Smith & Hawken and various fashion houses, especially from Italy, continue to use tagua buttons for their clothing. Ecuador is the only exporter of the tagua disks used to produce buttons. Annually, Ecuador exports approximately 100,000 metric tons of tagua. Vegetable ivory is also used to craft jewelry, tiny sculptures and in the design of home decoration products.
Exotic birds chirp as the guide and I slosh down a muddy winding road into tagua country. The locals regularly make the trek into the damp forests to search for tagua ready to be harvested. Cade are slow growing, single-trunked palms that mature after fifteen years and grow up to forty-five feet tall with a trunk measuring approximately one foot in diameter. They often grow together in stands called taguales. The palm is dioecious, meaning that the male and female plants are separate. Male inflorescences emerge from the leaves and dangle like long thin pine cone textured sausages that eventually turn grey. The female flowering heads, known as mocochas or cabezas, are made up of approximately twenty segments called pencos, which resemble enormous irregularly shaped dark brown spiked strawberries. Every year, the female cade produces ten to twelve mocochas, each measuring about one foot in diameter. The penco segments are concentrically united, creating the mococha, which holds 100-200 individual tagua nuts.
The germination of the tagua seed takes approximately eight months. Early in the seed formation process, the penco carries five or more large round clear gelatinous blobs safely cradled in a radial pattern in their individual natural round holders. Eventually, the gelatinous blobs harden and turn into hard creamy white seeds surrounded by a thin brown skin covered by a yellow fruit. The fruit is eaten by deer and rodents from the agouti species, locally known as guatuso, and the guanta, referring specifically to the paca (Agouti paca), the second-largest rodent (the largest is the semi-aquatic South American capybara). When the seeds ripen, the mococha falls to the ground. A mature cade is capable of producing 80 to 130 pounds of tagua nuts.
The tagua nuts are usually extracted from the penco at the site where they are found. They are then bagged in netting and transported by mule or bicycle to be dried and hardened for eight to twelve weeks.
The tagua is versatile and can be processed in various ways, depending on the design of the end product. The dark skin of the tagua is left on and polished for the chocolate or coffee bean look. Another technique is polishing the tagua until a lovely veined design is exposed, revealing the underlying creamy white seed beneath the dark tagua skin. The pure white stage is reached when the dark brown skin is completely sanded down. Most artisans use the creamy white seeds to craft the tiny tagua sculptures. As the tagua ages it turns into a warm antique cream color. Depending on the desired look, the white tagua may be fried, resulting in a caramel-like appearance. For this effect, the nuts are literally fried in oil in a frying pan. This technique is used primarily to make jewelry.
Each tagua nut style comes in small, medium and large sizes. The tagua size chosen by the craftspeople depends on the figurine being carved or the product being made. Larger animals may be carved out of more than one nut and assembled accordingly. Varying qualities of products exist. The craftspeople working with the organization Pro Pueblo have a fine reputation for crafting varied and exquisite tagua figurines, from leatherback turtles to white-tipped sicklebill hummingbirds. Pro Pueblo is an example of a fair trade non-profit organization working with Ecuadorian artisans to create high quality sustainable products using local materials. The process of harvesting, designing and creating products out of tagua provides people with jobs and cuts down on the use of animal ivory.