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What is Tagua?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Tagua is a form of vegetable ivory harvested from ivory palms in South America. It is viewed as a sustainable alternative to ivory derived from animals, and responsible cultivation and harvesting of tagua may also help with rain forest conservation in South America. Like true ivory, tagua is dense and creamy yellow in color, and it can be carved and worked into buttons, traditional handicrafts, billiard balls, musical instrument parts, and other things traditionally made from ivory.

The formal name for the South American ivory palm is Phytelephas aequatorialis, and the palms thrive between Paraguay and Panama. A full-grown tagua tree can reach 65 feet (20 meters) in height, and will yield several very large, knobbly wooden fruits. When the fruit is cracked open, it reveals several hen's egg sized tagua nuts, the seeds of the tree. The tagua seeds can be allowed to grow into seedlings to perpetuate the trees, or carved into vegetable ivory products. In small South American communities, tagua can provide a valuable economic and cultural service by providing people with a source of income which allows them to live traditional lifestyles.

In South America, several rain forest preservation initiatives have taken advantage of the economic value of tagua. Cultivation of the trees and sustainable harvesting is encouraged; in many places, tagua is grown in a rain forest environment, rather than a plantation, and the seeds are harvested naturally as they fall to the ground, so that the tree is not traumatized by climbing. This allows the tagua trees to provide valuable habitat to rain forest animals, and also assists with rain forest preservation, because the rain forest is more valuable standing than it is cut down. Keeping the rain forest intact allows scientists to explore it, cataloging new plant and animal species and finding other plants with potential economic, medical, and decorative uses for humans.

Like other forms of vegetable ivory, tagua is virtually indistinguishable from true ivory. People who are concerned about elephants also support tagua plantations, in the hope that vegetable ivory can totally replace elephant ivory. While elephants have been dangerously over hunted, tagua thrives through much of South America, and is also considered a renewable resource because the tree does not need to be killed to access the ivory. Thus, tagua can serve a two part function: helping to save the incredibly rare and diverse rain forest environment, and assisting with elephant conservation.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon194946 — On Jul 09, 2011

"Vegetable Ivory" or Tagua is an affordable Eco friendly alternative to animal ivory. The heroes of the rain forest who harvest the Tagua and hand make jewelry from it are an example of top quality sustainable, earth friendly lifestyle. --Gayla

By JessicaLynn — On Jun 13, 2011

I know ivory hasn't been popular in quite awhile. But I'm really hoping these tagua nut beads will catch on with the masses. Maybe for once something sustainably harvested will also become trendy and popular?

Seriously though these tagua beads just sound too cool. I think it's amazing they can be harvested without adversely affecting the tree and the trees can be left in their natural habitat to grow.

I don't usually spend this much time thinking about jewelry but we all know the rain forests are in trouble. If some beads can encourage people to cut down less trees I say bring on the advertising campaign!

By KaBoom — On Jun 11, 2011

@sunnySkys - Sadly there will always be people obsessed with having the "real" thing even if it isn't cruelty free. Lets just be glad ivory isn't all that popular these days, in fashion jewelry or otherwise.

Also it's actually not that surprising a plant and an elephants tusk could be so similar. I remember learning in biology that there actually isn't all that many differences in the DNA of a human and a potato, so why not an elephants tusk and a plant?

By sunnySkys — On Jun 09, 2011

I saw some tagua jewelry today at the mall and loved the way it looked! I didn't have time to stop and buy any or even get a close look so of course I turned to the internet for answers.

I am so shocked ivory can come from a plant as well as from an elephants tusk! I thought the tagua looked like ivory but I thought selling ivory was against the law in the United States. I had no idea there was a plant based ivory alternative.

The jewelry looked very stylish but I'm afraid the demand for ivory from elephants will never totally go away.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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