International Palm Society LogoVegetable Ivory and Other Palm Nuts/Seeds as an Art/Craft Medium

Reprinted with permission from the October 1997 issue of Principes, Vol 41, No 4
Journal of the International Palm Society (Renamed as Palms in 1999)

1997 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved

EUGENE T. DOREN, Wasilla, Alaska 

The purpose of this article is to describe the use of some palm nuts or seeds as a medium for arts and crafts, instead of their normal roles in reproduction, as a food source, etc. I will attempt to keep this article at a low technical level, but will refer to more technical papers, when I am aware of them.

For many years people have been using vegetable ivory to make a variety of items. According to Schabillion (1989), the tagua nut from South America was brought to England in small quantities during the 1820s and 1830s. Toys, umbrella handles, and carvings were made from the nuts. A few tons made it to Germany in the late 1850s. By 1862 button factories were being established in France and England, in Leeds, Massachusetts in 1864, in Canada in 1870, and by the German-American Button Company Rochester, New York in the early 1880s. By 1887, it was recorded that two or three million nuts were used each year by the factories in London and Birmingham, England. During the Victorian age many items were crafted by hand-carving or turning on an ornamental or conventional lathe; included were thimbles and thimble cases with threaded lids, needle cases with threaded lids, tape measures with spindles, ear rings, dice, and rings. Most of these were highly ornamented. The greatest utilization and consumption of vegetable ivory were in the production of buttons, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of World War 11 (Barfod 1989). The tagua nut, the seed of Phytelephas (Phytelephantoideae, Uhl and Dransfield 1987), was probably the source of most of the vegetable ivory of that period. The other two genera in sub-family Phytelephantoideae (Ammandra and Aphandra, Barfod 1991) were a contributing source. The genera Hyphaene from Africa and Metroxylon from Asia were also used in the button-making industry.

My approach will be more from a woodturner's view, than as a palm expert. Numerous articles have been written on the tagua nut as an art/craft medium, but there are very few, if any, reports on Metroxylon, Hyphaene, Actinorhytis, Veitchia, Bismarckia, Mauritia, and Areca, to name only a few of the many more out there that I have not had an opportunity to try yet! I will relate my experiences with many of the genera that I have tried, and provide details of the turning process on seeds of Phytelephantoideae and Metroxylon.


There are two species in the genus Actinorhytis (Uhl and Dransfield 1987), A. calapparia native to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and A. poamau in the Solomon Islands. I have not seen information or fruits from the latter.

A. calapparia. The fruit is very large, about 2.5" long X 1.5" wide (6.35 X 3.8 cm), ovoid +/- beaked, green turning orange-red at maturity, eplicarp smooth, mesocarp with thin flesh and fibers, adhering to the endocarp, endocarp thin, hard, stony, adhering closely to what appears to be a thick seed coat, which in turn adheres closely to a deeply ruminate endosperm, with a central irregular hollow. The embryo is basal, and the seed about 2.0" X 1.25" (5.0 X 3.2 cm), globose, with a lateral, longitudinal hilum. The adhesion of the endocarp, seed coat, and endosperm is so great, that I have been unable to dry the fruits without the seed cracking. To overcome this problem, I turn the wet nuts on the lathe, removing every-thing down to the endosperm, then allow it to dry. A. calapparia is a very attractive nut, and can be used to make a vase or box. The ruminate pattern, viewed externally, resembles many equally spaced pin holes (Fig. 2).


There are about 60 species, distributed from India and South China through Malaysia to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The fruit is globose, ovoid, or spindle shaped, often brightly colored, rarely dull brown or green; the epicarp is smooth, shiny, or dull, the mesocarp thin to moderately thick, fleshy, or fibrous, and the endocarp composed of robust longitudinal fibers, usually closely adhering to the seed, possibly becoming free at the basal end. Seed conform to the fruit shape or are slightly hollow at the base; the hilum is basal, the endosperm deeply ruminate, and the embryo basal (Uhl and Dransfield 1987).

A. catechu. The common name is betel nut palm. The fruit is yellow when mature and about 1.8" long X 1.1": wide (4.5 X 2.8 cm); the endocarp is thin, hard, and brittle; it adheres tightly to the seed coat, sometimes even when dry. The seed size is about 1.0' long X 3/4' wide (2.5 X 2.0 cm)-The ruminate endosperm is very attractive in a vase.

A. ipot. The seed is similar to A. catechu, except for being slightly oval in horizontal section.


B. nobilis. The single species in the genus Bismarckia, common name Bismarck palm, is from the drier parts of Madagascar (Uhl and Dransfield 1987). The fruit has a smooth, shiny, rich brown epicarp, somewhat speckled with lighter brown, the mesocarp is fibrous, +/- aromatic, and the endocarp about 1.7" long X 1.1" wide (4.3 X 2.8 Cm), thick, irregularly flanged and pitted, and with a conspicuous central intrusion at the base. Seed are basally attached with homogeneous endosperm, but grooved to match the endocarp intrusions, and have apical embryos. This nut makes an attractive vase (Fig. 1).


The genus Hyphaene probably consists of about ten species (Uhl and Dransfield 1987). One common name is Doum palm. The species are distributed in the drier parts of Africa, Natal, Madagascar, Red Sea Gulf of Eilat coasts, coastal Arabia, and the west coast of India.

H. thebaica. The fruit is somewhat variable in shape, but tends to be between ovoid and spherical and taller than wide. The epicarp is smooth, generally shiny, and from light brown to almost black. The mesocarp is fibrous, often aromatic, and referred to as the gingerbread palm, apparently because of its similar taste. I have received some that have the aroma of wine. The endocarp is a hard fibrous material. The seed is basally attached, and taller than wide, about 1.25" long x 1.0' wide (3.2 x 2.5 cm). It is larger at the base, has a brown seed coat, and homogeneous endosperm (vegetable ivory) with a central hollow and an apical embryo. My experience with the light brown fruits is that many times the seed is small, with the seed coat not or only partially attached to the endosperm. The embryo appears to be developed, but I have not tried germination. The very dark brown fruits seem consistently to have large well-developed seeds, with the seed coat tightly attached to the endosperm, and work well for making vases.

H. petersiana. The fruit is similar to H. thebaica, but is more spherical, although at times approaching pear shape. The endocarp is the thickest of the species I have worked with, and I have made box lids and goblet tops from them. The seed is flat at the base, nearly round in horizontal section, about 1.1" long X 1.25" wide (2.9 X 3.2 cm) with the apex slightly peaked at the embryo. The basic shape is ideal for making boxes.

H. coriacea. The fruit and seed are pear shaped to spherical, the seed is about 1.0" in diameter (2.5 cm), with a central hollow. The species has the same basic fruit characteristics as H. thebaica and is suitable for making vases (Fig. 4).


There are two species distributed in the wetter parts of Trinidad, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, and Brazil. The common name is Mauritia palm. Fruit is +/- rounded, very large, usually one seeded, with apical stigmatic remains. The epicarp is covered in many neat vertical rows of reddish-brown reflexed scales, the mesocarp is rather thick and fleshy, and the endocarp not differentiated. The seed is rounded, attached near the base, with a blunt apical beak, thin seed coat, homogeneous endosperm, and basal embryo (Uhl and Dransfield 1987).

M. flexuosa. The seeds I received were cleaned down to the seed coat; the embryo is subbasal-lateral, the endosperm homogeneous, and solid, without central cracks like the tagua. The seed is about 1.4 x 7/8" (3.5 X 2.2 cm). The disadvantage is the position of the embryo, but that can be designed around. This nut can be used to make vases and small lidded boxes (Fig. 1).

This excerpt is the first two pages of the article that originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Principes.  Several photos accompany the article and the back cover shows an impressive display of items described in this informative article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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