IUCN threat status:

Near Threatened (NT)

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Phytelephas aequatorialis

The palm tree Phytelephas aequatorialis, commonly known as Ecuadorean Ivory Palm, is the main source of Ecuadorean vegetable ivory or tagua, a botanical alternative to ivory. This palm is found in the tropical rainforests of Ecuador. It has a woody trunk which can grow to 20 m in height and very long pinnate leaves.

The plants are dioecious, with the female individuals bearing large brown conical fruits, each approximately the size of a grapefruit and covered in a horned husk, containing usually four seeds. Immature seeds contain sweet edible pulp. Mature seeds are harder than wood and are encased in a bonelike shell. The endosperm is a white hemicellulose material that is so hard it can be polished and carved like ivory. (The plant's genus name Phytelephas means "elephant plant".) Three other species in this genus are sources of vegetable ivory as well.

The edible immature seeds are often dispersed by rainforest rodents such as agoutis. In some rural areas the trees are used to attract rodents, which are then captured for their meat.

The palms are occasionally cultivated as a cash crop. International conservation organizations pay farmers for vegetable ivory in hopes that interest in the product will lead to resources being allotted for the protection of rainforests and the preservation of its flora.

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