|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
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
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
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.
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).