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Copernicia baileyana Leon (photo F. De Santis)

Copernicia cerifera Mart.

Etymology - Its generic name is dedicated to the famous Polish astronomer N. Copernicus. Its specific name clearly refers to its characteristic production of wax.

Area of origin - NE Brazil.

Botanical description - Palm exhibiting an erect, single trunk, 10-12 m tall, covered with the remains of leaf sheaths. Its leaves, borne on an erect petiole, are palmate, 1.2-1.5 m in diameter, split half their length into approximately 60 acuminate, bright green segments, covered with a waxy substance. Its flowers are grouped into branched, clustered inflorescences as long as the leaves. Its fruits are subrounded and brownish in colour.

Uses - From its leaves a very valuable kind of wax is extracted, carnauba wax, whose name refers to a native people of Brazil, where this plant grows spontaneously.

The leaves are collected during the dry season, when they are still closed and coated by a thin layer of wax. This gets removed, sifted, then melted and sold in the shape of hard brittle bars whose colour may range from grey-greenish to pale yellow to even whitish if the wax has been decolorised.

Each plant bears some hundred leaves; from each of them about 7 kg wax are extracted.

Carnauba wax is the hardest vegetable wax being known, it is hardly cold melting and chiefly employed in order to raise the melting point of other waxes.

It is largely employed in many sectors due to its excellent physical characteristics; due to his hardness and longer lasting gloss, it is chiefly appreciated as a component of floor polish, as well as of furniture and car body wax, shoe polish, carbon paper inks. It is also employed to finish and polish leather articles, oilcloths, soaps, to make pencils and crayons, finally to harden candles.

The best and purest parts (without sand, soil, etc.) are employed by the cosmetic industry to prepare lipsticks, depilatory waxes and deodorant sticks, as their thickness is enhanced by it.