Tagua, also known as vegetable ivory, is a seed that comes from the Phytelephas Macrocarpa palm tree, an endangered palm tree that only grows in the tropical rainforests of the South American Pacific coasts. Etymologically, the term Phytelephas Macrocarpa is derived from the Greek phyton: plant, and elephas: elephant, making reference to the ivory.
The Tagua palm tree grows in the humid rainforest, under the canopy, to a height of 20 to 30 feet. The Tagua seed ranges in size from a cherry to a grapefruit and averages about the size of a walnut.
Chemically, they are pure cellulose. Before the nuts mature they have a milky sweet liquid in the center that can be consumed. The cellular structure and grain is similar to that of elephant ivory, but is more dense and resilient. It resembles the finest ivory in texture and color, and is slightly softer than mammal ivory. The nuts are usually void in the center.
When ripe, the nuts fall to the ground and are gathered and dried for a period of up to two years. Over this time, they become extremely hard (ivory-like). The nuts are harvested after they are ripe and have fallen to the ground, which means no damage is done to the rainforest during the production process.
Most importantly, tagua is replacing the slaughter of mammal ivory (the ivory of elephants and other mammals) in the textile and fashion industries.
For over two hundred years, tagua has been used in the making of dice, dominoes and chess pieces. Other purposes include use in cane and umbrella handles, pipes, mah-jongg tiles, sewing needle cases and the fine art of scrimshaw. In the late 1800s up through World War II, this ivory nut was used to make some of the finest buttons in the clothing industry. For close to eighty years, the ivory nut was a commodity of global importance and factories on three continents used to manufacture articles of utility and luxury.