Phytelephas Ruiz & Pav.
  • Syst. Veg. Fl. Peruv. Chil.: 299 (1798) 

Notes: Distribution: Panama to S. Trop. America

General Description

Moderate, solitary or clustered, unarmed, pleonanthic, dioecious palms. Stem robust or rarely rather slender, erect or procumbent, internodes short, covered with a mass of fibres and petiole bases, when bare marked by spiral, triangular, often pitted leaf scars. Leaves numerous or rarely few, erect, arching, evenly pinnate; marcescent; sheath tubular, sometimes with a large ligule opposite the petiole, becoming fibrous; petiole short, lacking, or rarely elongate, shallowly channelled adaxially, rounded abaxially, margins rounded or sharp; rachis triangular in section, with greyish brown scales abaxially, leaflets regularly arranged in one plane, or irregularly arranged and held in different planes to give the leaf a plumose appearance, subopposite, single-fold, pointed, often pinched in at the base, usually smaller basally and distally, glossy dark green adaxially, paler and duller beneath; tomentose abaxially along a conspicuous midrib, transverse veinlets conspicuous. Inflorescences interfoliar, staminate and pistillate dissimilar; staminate unbranched; peduncle short; prophyll short, tubular, 2-keeled laterally, broadly pointed, splitting apically; complete peduncular bracts 1, like the prophyll but longer, splitting abaxially, persistent above the inflorescence, subsequent peduncular bracts several (4–5), incomplete, spirally inserted below the flowers. Staminate flowers in groups of 4, sessile or with a conspicuous common stalk, usually lacking a subtending into sepals and petals at maturity (but see Uhl and Moore 1977b); stamens 36–900 or more, filaments erect, awl-shaped, anthers elongate, latrorse; pistillode lacking. Pollen ellipsoidal, usually with slight or, occasionally, with obvious asymmetry; aperture a distal sulcus; ectexine tectate, coarsely perforate, or perforate-rugulate, aperture margin slightly finer; infratectum columellate; longest axis 72–90 µm [3/7]. Pistillate inflorescence head-like; peduncle short, dorsiventrally flattened; prophyll and first peduncular bract as in the staminate, subsequent peduncular bracts numerous, larger than in the staminate, sometimes in series, elongate, pointed, ± covering the flowers. Pistillate flowers asymmetrical, each subtended by a pointed bract, spirally arranged, closely appressed; sepals 3 or more, triangular, ± elongate; petals 4–10, long, narrow, variously folded and wrinkled; staminodes numerous, 35 or more, like the stamens but irregular in size; gynoecium of 4–10 united carpels, ovarian part short, rounded, stigma long, narrow, cylindrical, styles as many as the carpels, long, narrow, conduplicately folded with stigmatoid tissue along the margins, ovules 1 per carpel, hemianatropous or anatropous. Fruit clusters, individual fruits ± rounded, 4–10-seeded, covered with large, woody, pointed warts, stylar remains terminal; epicarp woody, mesocarp fibrous, endocarp surrounding each seed bony or shell-like, bifacial adaxially with round basal projection, rounded abaxially. Seed ±kidney-shaped, basally or laterally attached, hilum round, median to basal, raphe branches numerous, laterally ascending and anastomosing; endosperm homogeneous, hard (vegetable ivory), embryo basal or lateral. Germination remote-ligular; eophyll pinnate. Cytology: 2n = 36.

Diagnostic Description

Vegetable ivory palms distinguished by the staminate flowers having relatively flat or slightly rounded floral receptacles and being sessile or borne in groups of four on short stalks.


Vegetative (Tomlinson 196l, Barfod 1991), root (Seubert 1996b), floral (Moore and Uhl 1973, Uhl and Moore 1977b, Uhl and Dransfield 1984) and seed (Werker 1997).


Strictly confined to rain forest usually under large trees along streams and on wet hillsides.


Six species occurring in the Amazonian Basin in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, and along the northwest coast of Ecuador, Colombia and into Venezuela and Panama.


Leaves are used for thatch; immature pericarp and endosperm are edible; mature endosperm is hard and used as vegetable ivory for carvings.

Common Names

Ivory palms, tagua, yarina.

Distribution Map

  • Native distribution
Found in
  • Southern America Brazil Brazil North
  • Central America Panamá
  • Western South America Bolivia
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Peru


  • 1 J. Dransfield & N. Uhl & C. Asmussen & W.J. Baker & M. Harley & C. Lewis, Genera Palmarum. The evolution and classification of palms. 2008
  • 2 Govaerts, R. & Dransfield, J. (2005). World Checklist of Palms: 1-223. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

 Information From

Palmweb - Palms of the World Online
Palmweb 2011. Palmweb: Palms of the World Online. Published on the internet Accessed on 21/04/2013
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Global Biodiversity Information Facility
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eMonocot. (2010, 1st November). Retrieved Wednesday, 8th February, 2012, from
  • D Content licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
WCSP 2014. 'World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; Retrieved 2011 onwards
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