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IVORY PALMS

Phytelephas aequatorialis Spruce (Photo Giovanni Onore)

 

Phytelephas macrocarpa Ruiz & Pav.

Etymology - Its generic name derives from Greek phyton = plant and elephas = elephant, with reference to the production of ivory. Its specific name refers to the fruit conspicuous size, larger than in other species.

Area of origin - Colombia, Ecuador.

Botanical description - Palm exhibiting a quite peculiar habit, characterised as it is by a creeping stem, from which numerous adventitious roots depart. It is arched and ascending up to a short distal end where a thick crown of erect, pinnate leaves, up to 6 m long, arises. Flowers are unisexual, borne on separate individuals; male flowers are clustered in long and cylindrical unbranched spadices; female flowers are clustered in short and closely packed glomerular inflorescences. When ripe, they yield globose clusters of partially connate fruits (drupes), bearing 6-9 seeds. Seeds contain a nutritious matter (albumen), at first milk-like, edible and pleasantly tasting, when ripe turning extremely hard, much like animal ivory.

Uses - Hard albumen from the seeds of this palm, as well as from Hyphaene thebaica, yields a quite valuable vegetable ivory, employed to make buttons and carved articles.