Category Archives: Plants

Ever Wonder Where Cashews Come From?

I love cashews, but, honestly, I never thought about how they grow, until my neighbor reached into the back of his produce-filled pickup truck and handed me an unusual gala apple-colored fruit with a little black nose sticking out of the top. The cashew apple is actually not considered a true fruit, but a pseudofruit. Of course, even after taking a bite, cashews didn’t immediately come to mind. When my neighbor told me that in some parts of the world people only eat the nuts, it became obvious that the little black nose was actually more cashew-shaped.

Cashew trees, Anarcardium occidentale, are native to Brazil and belong to the Anarcardiaceae (Sumac) family. Other well-known members of this family are the pistachio and mango. The word cashew is derived from the Brazilian Tupian language’s word for the plant, acajú. The Portuguese call it caju. In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced the cashew tree from their Brazilian outpost to Mozambique and India to control erosion. The cashew’s commercial value wasn’t realized until the 19th century, when it started being planted in various tropical regions, including other parts of South America. More than 90% of the world’s cashew supply comes from Vietnam, Nigeria, India and Brazil. The United States, Netherlands and Germany are the primary cashew nut importers.

In Ecuador and Central America, the cashew apple, marañon in Spanish, is squeezed for juice or eaten fresh. In the El Salvadorian kitchen, it is commonly used in salads mixed with other fruits, such as apples and mamey. Generally, the seed (cashew nut) is discarded. In the United States and Europe, cashew nuts are commonly served alone, roasted and salted, as a tasty snack. In Thai cuisine, cashews are added to chicken and the Indian cultures mix cashews into salads, vegetables and lamb dishes. The cashew apple, which reminds me a bit of a persimmon, is also delicious, but the nuts are still my favorite.


Curiously Delicious Caimito

Caimito Inside

The other day my neighbor brought by lemons, oranges and caimitos (Chrysophyllum cainito) from his orchard. I already envisioned the fresh squeezed juice from the lemons and oranges, but the caimitos were something new. My curiosity got the better of me, so I immediately sliced one in half and scooped out the slippery fruit inside with a teaspoon. The skin is inedible. It had such a unique and delicious flavor that I continued until I finished all three. The property where I am living also has caimito trees, but they aren’t ready to eat yet.

A caimito (pronounced “kai-mee-toe,” with an emphasis on the “mee”) looks like a dark fig on the outside, but then, when you slice it open, it resembles a white creamy plum with a black coffee bean-like seed inside. The taste reminds me of cherimoya. The white sappy substance is probably responsible for making your lips sticky. It’s not an unpleasant stickiness, but more like a tacky tape feel, which goes away after a few lip smacks. The caimito belongs to the tropical Sapotaceae family and is also known as a star apple. When cut in half transversely, rather than lengthwise, the white part of the fruit reveals a star shape.

Unripe Caimito

Ecuadorian Tagua Nuts


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.

Tagua Country

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.

Male inflorescence Mococha Penco

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.

Gelatinous stage Yellow fruit Tagua encasement Tagua cross section

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.

Tagua Harvesters

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.

White Tagua

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.

3 Pro Pueblo Rays


Chloris and Momordica

Chloris spp.

Chloris and Momordica are two plant species growing in our front and backyard. The Chloris lines the street in front of the house. It is particularly attractive in the morning, when the rising sun highlights the grass’s mauve color. In the province of Galapagos, there are three species of Chloris, also known as Feather Fingergrass. It is uncertain whether any or all of the species are native or introduced. As Julian Fitter’s Wildlife of the Galápagos nicely describes, native means that the specie is “found in the Galapagos and elsewhere, but arrived by natural means.” Introduced indicates a specie that was “brought to Galápagos by man, either deliberately or inadvertently.”

blue rain barrelOut back, where the washbasin is located, there is an abundance of lush, green vines climbing in every direction. Every other day or so, my housemate, Mayra, or I step down among the vines to turn on the water pump. The pump delivers water from a cistern under the house to a covered bright blue rain barrel sitting on a concrete piling approximately twelve feet above ground. A full rain barrel assures a few decent-pressured showers and water in the kitchen and toilets for two or three days. The cistern under the house probably holds a couple hundred gallons of water. If we remember to place the black hose into the grey pipe feeding the cistern, we have an uninterrupted supply of water. When the cistern is full, we kink the black hose and place it between two lava rocks. The water in the black hose, supplied by the town of Puerto Ayora, is turned on at some point each morning. The Puerto Ayora water supply comes from the coastal grietas (crevasses or cracks in Spanish), a semi-saline, non-potable water source.

Momordica flowerOne morning, as I went to turn on the water pump, I noticed what appeared to be brilliant yellow and orange beacons scattered amongst the sea of green vines. I could not resist grabbing the camera and photographing these unusual flowers with their bright red fruit. Momordica charantia, or simply Momordica, is a Galapagos native with lovely fig leaf-shaped leaves. The flowers start out a lemon yellow and then turn orange as they wither and give way to the fruit.

Momordica charantia


Tortuga Bay’s Playa Mansa

Playa Mansa

Playa Mansa is the calmer of the two Tortuga Bay beaches. Mansa means gentle in Spanish. Generally, this is the beach of choice for families with children. In the afternoon, there are often sea turtles swimming around the bay. Renting a kayak is another way to explore the area.

Rent kayaks at Playa Mansa


The beach and the bay of Playa Mansa are lined with mangroves. They provide shade from the hot sun and many people use them to hang their backpacks. There are four types of mangroves found along the Galapagos coast: the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) and button mangrove (Conocarpus erectus). The latter is the least common. Playa Mansa is one of the few areas where the button mangrove is found. It is most easily identified by its button-like fruit and smaller pointed leaves.

Button mangrove

Path to Tortuga


Path to Tortuga with Palo SantoTortuga Bay is my favorite beach area in Galapagos. The Bay consists of two beaches, Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. Brava means rough in Spanish. There are two signs along the way warning unsuspecting swimmers of the danger of entering the waters of Playa Brava. Over the years, a number of people have succumbed to its strong currents. I enjoy swimming in the waves, so Playa Brava is my favorite. If you want to swim with the sea turtles (aka. tortugas) in the late afternoon, Playa Mansa is the place to go. Mansa means gentle. To reach the Bay, you start at the small Galapagos National Park hut, where you sign-in and out and can buy water and snacks. The walk from the hut to Playa Brava is ~20 minutes. The well-constructed path leads you through one of the many surreal landscapes of Galapagos. Once you reach the beach, Playa Mansa is a 10 minute walk on the powdery white sands of Playa Brava. Playa means beach.

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