365 Days of Earrings

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hail Tagua, the "Vegetable Ivory"

This morning I dressed in lavender and green. I wore this pair of tagua palm nut earrings that were a gift from my daughter Kathe.

All day, I fielded questions from my students about them.

"Is the nut really green?"

"How big are the nuts?"

"What is the tree like?"

"What else can you make out of that kind of nut?"

Tagua nuts can be dyed any color.
Some, like my "avocado" shade,
come from natural plant dyes.
I didn't know. So tonight I Googled a bit.
The tagua nut is white with a brown exterior.
When dried it can be carved like ivory.

The tagua nut is also known as vegetable ivory. We humans have learned that many resources are not as renewable as we once thought. Like elephants, walruses, and rhinos.

"Vegetable ivory" allows us to make products like buttons, figurines, chess sets, and jewelry--without taking a life or damaging an ecosystem. In fact, harvesting the nut of the tagua palm helps preserve the rain forest ecosystems in South America.

I was shocked to discover that in the 1920's--before the invention of plastics-- buttons were often made from this same nut. Only now are we beginning to return to this practice, rather than using non-renewable petroleum products to manufacture plastic buttons.

Squirreled away in one of my drawers, I have this beaded bracelet made of ivory. My father gave it to me in the 1960s, one of many family heirlooms that I was given, "If you'll use it." I wore it for quite a few years, even replacing the elastic a few times when it wore out. I don't have the ivory cribbage board or the ivory chess set, both of which lay on the shelf next to my dad's rocking chair for years. And I can't imagine wearing ivory any more, although not wearing it does not bring the elephants back to life.

So hurray for the genus Phytelephas, source of the tagua nut, savior of living elephants, of rain forests, of vital resources. How I love such simple solutions to complex problems.

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