Phytelephas (Gr. , a plant, and elephant), the botanical name of the genus which produces the ivory nut or Vegetable ivory. It was formerly placed in the palm family; but as it differs essentially from the palms in the structure of the flowers, it now forms, with one other South American genus, a separate order, the phytelephasieoB. The genus contains two if not more species, the most important of which is P. rnaarocarpa, which furnishes the ivory nuts of commerce. The tree is found in the northern parts of South America, where on the banks of streams and in other damp localities it forms distinct groves, other trees, shrubs, or even herbs being hardly ever mixed with it. The proper stem creeps along the ground for 20 ft. or more, and then ascends, the upright portion being seldom over 4 or 6 ft. high, and terminated by a crown of 12 or more pinnatifid leaves 18 to 20 ft. long. The flowers are dioecious, the male plant taller and more robust than the female, and its flowers in pendulous spikes 5 or 6 ft. long; the female flowers are in bundles of six or seven on short, thick, erect peduncles; both kinds emit a penetrating almond-like perfume, very attractive to bees.
The fruit is a collection of six or seven drupes, each containing six to nine seeds; these drupes are aggregated in a mass something like a rounded cone, its exterior being formed of the crustaceous covering of the drupes, which is rough with woody protuberances. Each mass weighs about 25 lbs., and there are six or eight to each tree; these are called by the South Americans caoe-ms de negro or negro-heads. The ovoid nut is about as large as a hen's egg, with a blunt prominence at one side, showing the point of attachment, and often more or less flattened and angled by mutual compression; the testa, or outer covering of the seed, is hard and brittle, and within is the copious white, ivory-like albumen. In their early state the seeds are filled with a clear tasteless liquid, which after a time becomes milky and sweet, and gradually acquires greater consistency, until at length it is nearly as hard as ivory; during their softer stages swine, bears, turkeys, and other animals feed upon the seeds. The natives use the leaves of the plant to thatch their huts, eat the albumen while it is soft, and also value the sweetish oily pulp which surrounds the seeds within the drupe; but they make little or no use of the ripe nuts, which are exported in large quantities to England and the United States. A great many small articles of turnery are made from them, including cane heads, knobs, and buttons.
Young specimens of the tree are much prized by collectors of palms and similar plants, as it is many years before the stem begins to become prostrate.
Vegetable Ivory Tree (Phytelephas macrocarpa).