Botanical Jewelry

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WAYNE'S WORD Volume 9 (Number 1) Spring 2000

Botanical Jewelry

Necklaces & Bracelets
Made From Plants

  See Articles About Drift Seeds:
   Drift Seeds 1     Drift Seeds 2 

This Article Modified From: Terra Volume 30 (3): 26-33.
Spring 1992 by Original Author W. P. Armstrong (1998).

Table Of Contents
 1.   Introduction To Jewelry
 2.   Amber: Fossilized Resin
 3.   Job's Tears & Acacia Thorns
 4.   Junipers and Soapberries
 5.   Bright Red Mescal Beans
 6.   Bright Red Coral Beans
 7.   Red and Black Prayer Beads
 8.   Shiny Red Circassian Seeds
 9.   Sea Beans: Ocean Drift Seeds
10.  The Fabulous Mary's Bean
11.  Sea Hearts: Ocean Voyagers
12.  Nickernuts: Tropical Marbles
13.  Shiny Wild Tamarind Seeds
14.  Deadly Jimsonweed Seeds
15.  Guanacaste From Costa Rica
16.  Amazing Seeds From Palms
17.  Vegetable Ivory From Palms
18.  The Alleged Coconut Pearl
19.  Disclaimer On Coconut Pearls
20.  Kukui Nuts From Hawaii
21.  Tianina Seeds From Tahiti
22.  Mahogany & Sandbox Trees
23.  The Blue Marble Tree
24.  Necklaces From Bamboo
25.  Jet From Ancient Conifers
26.  Other Seed Jewelry Links
27.  Preserving Seed Jewelry
28.  Some Good References

1. Introduction

Humans have been decorating their bodies with the beauty of natural objects for thousands of years. Primitive man wore necklaces made from the bones, claws and teeth of slain animals. Today most people think of natural jewelry as shiny pieces of corals, pearls and precious or semiprecious stones, polished and set in gold or silver. Who would ever believe that some of the most unusual and striking jewelry in the world comes from plants? With the exception of amber and coconut pearls, most botanical jewelry is made from relatively inexpensive materials. Polished wooden beads, colorful seeds and pieces of palm, bamboo and tropical hardwoods are strung on fine nylon filament or gold and silver chains, producing attractive necklaces and bracelets that rival any synthetic costume jewelry. In terms of aesthetic beauty and intrinsic value, plant jewelry may rank as high as any gemstone. Exotic seed necklaces from native cultures throughout the world often come with fabulous tales about their origins and legendary uses.

2. Amber: Fossilized Resin

Without any doubt, the most expensive botanical jewelry is made from amber, fossilized resin from ancient forests that flourished millions of years ago. Often the globs of hardened pitch contain the bodies of insects--perfectly preserved in every detail as though they were encased the day before. Since the first records of Neolithic man in Europe, approximately 5,000 years ago, amber has been used as a barter item. Amber has been cherished not only for its beauty but also because it was thought to heal many types of illness and also to protect against witchcraft, sorcery and the evil eye. Many people believed that when worn as a tightly beaded necklace, amber guarded against chills by absorbing body heat by day and retaining it at night.

Go To Amber: Nature's Transparent Tomb
Ancient Plants That Lived With Dinosaurs

Amber trade routes of the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans crossed Europe from the Baltic Sea area, where it was found in great abundance. Even today one of the largest commercial productions of amber comes from large mines on the Baltic shore. Together with tin, amber has been considered one of the chief items that led the Romans to penetrate the Gallic regions to the west and north of the Mediterranean. To appreciate the monetary value of amber, a piece weighing 18 pounds was valued at 30 million U.S. dollars prior to World War II.

For centuries amber was imported from Europe across the Mediterranean to West Africa and down the Red Sea to Ethiopia. The sheer beauty of amber has made it a popular adornment for African women, who wear it in various styles according to their marital status and cultural heritage. In fact, some of the world's most beautiful and elegant amber jewelry is worn by women of Ethiopia and Mali.

Raw pine resin or pitch is a valuable commodity and figures prominently in the history of the United States. The settlement of North America was partially due to England's desire to rid herself of dependence on Scandinavian sources of resin--since the pitch was used to caulk ships and waterproof rigging. In fact, the industry to produce these ship-related commodities became known as "naval stores." When raw pine pitch is distilled the volatile "spirits of turpentine" are removed, leaving a solid residue known as rosin. Rosin is used in the manufacture of varnishes, printer's ink, paper coatings and sealants. The rosin bag of baseball players contains powdered rosin that becomes sticky when the pitcher's hand warms it. The slight stickiness helps the pitcher to grip the ball and hopefully improve the accuracy of the pitch. Rosin is also used on the bows of string instruments to make them slightly sticky, thus creating more friction and enhancing the tone of the music.

In addition to the pine family (Pinaceae), many other trees produce thick, resinous sap which is utilized by people. Natural lacquers come from the resinous sap of the Japanese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), a member of the sumac family (Anacardiaceae) and close relative of our poison ivy. Trees of the torchwood family (Burseraceae) produce the aromatic incense resins frankincense, myrrh and copal, used extensively in Old and New World civilizations for thousands of years. Other very fragrant natural resins, such as balsams and amber oil, find their way into sachets and wonderfully scented perfumes. One of the major sources of neotropical amber is the West Indian locust (Hymenaea protera), an extinct leguminous tree of the rain forests of Central and South America.

Go To Amber: Nature's Transparent Tomb

3. Job's Tears and Acacia Thorns

Most botanical jewelry is made from seeds which are drilled and strung into necklaces and bracelets. Large spectacular seeds are often used for pendants. Generally, the most durable and colorful seeds are used, although striking necklaces can be purchased in Mexico made from ordinary beans, corn grains, acorns and a common tropical grass called Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). In Costa Rica and Belize unusual necklaces are made from the woody thorns of certain species of Acacia, including Acacia cornigera and Acacia collinsii. In the Acacia scrub forests, some of the these hollow thorns actually serve as "condominiums" for symbiotic ants that vigorously protect the trees from browsing mammals and destructive insect pests. For this service the tree supplies the ants with carbohydrate-rich nectar secretions from its leaf stalks, and nutritious lipid-protein morsels called Beltian bodies from its leaflet tips.

See Job's Tears: Nature's Perfect Bead
See Central American Swollen-Thorn Acacias

4. Junipers and Soapberries

Indians of the southwestern United States and Mexico made necklaces from a variety of interesting native seeds, including angular brown seeds from juniper berries (Juniperus monosperma and J. osteosperma) and the black, marblelike seeds of Texas buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) and western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria). The soapberry tree has a remarkable distribution throughout southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, extending southward through Mexico into Central and South America. Each soapberry seed, often called a "black pearl," is produced in a leathery brown berry containing toxic saponins. Saponins are a group of glycosides containing glucose or a related sugar plus a toxic triterpenoid component. They have the unusual property of foaming with water, and soapberries have been used as soap in Mexico and tropical America. In addition, saponins are especially toxic to cold-blooded vertebrates and crushed soapberry fruits were thrown into ponds and streams to stupefy the fish.

See A Lovely Soapberry Necklace
Other Members Of The Soapberry Family

5. Bright Red Mescal Beans

In the southwestern United States and Mexico, the most spectacular seed necklaces are made from the bright red seeds of two native shrubs called mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) and coral bean (Erythrina flabelliformis). The mescal bean is a very attractive evergreen shrub with drooping clusters of violet-blue wisterialike flowers. Mescal beans are especially interesting because they were used by a number of Indian tribes in a vision-seeking "Red Bean Dance," centered around the ingestion of the potent seeds. In fact, at least a dozen Indian tribes in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico practiced the hallucinogenic Red Bean Dance. The vivid red mescal beans have been found at Indian sites dating back to 1500 BC. Since mescal beans contain the highly toxic quinolizidine alkaloid cytisine, often resulting in overdose and death, they were later abandoned for a safer, more spectacular hallucinogen--the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). Today the seeds are still used as a ceremonial necklace worn by the leader of the peyote ceremony, called the "roadman."

A colorful seed necklace made from the bright red seeds of mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) and shiny black seeds of Texas buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa).

Mescal beans should not be confused with the intoxicating drink called mescal, or the potent alkaloid mescaline. Mescal or mezcal is a fermented, distilled beverage made from several species of Mexican magueys, especially Agave angustifolia. One mezcal brand contains an agave worm or "gusano de maguey," the robust larva of a megathymid butterfly, quite literally dead drunk in every bottle. The powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid mescaline is found in several cactus species, including peyote and the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi). The chemical structure of mescaline is remarkably similar to the neurotransmitter dopamine of the human brain.

Go To WAYNE'S WORD Alkaloid Article
See Photos Of Alkaloid Producing Plants
Go To Mescal Bean and Peyote Cactus

6. Bright Red Coral Beans

The native coral tree of southern Arizona and New Mexico, Erythrina flabelliformis, is one of the most beautiful flowering shrubs in the United States. Like other species of Erythrina the large, red blossoms are followed by woody legume pods containing shiny red seeds. There are more than 100 species of Erythrina, mostly found in Mexico, Central and South America, and Africa. Several theories have been proposed to explain the distribution of numerous species of Erythrina on the isolated continents of Africa and South America, including "continental drift" and dispersal of seeds and pods by ocean currents. During the Cretaceous and Jurassic Periods, Africa and South America were directly connected with each other and with Antarctica, India, and Australia, in a great southern supercontinent called Gondwanaland. It is doubtful that the genus Erythrina existed when Africa and South America were connected because the time frame for Gondwanaland is too early for Erythrina. A more plausible explanation for the distribution of coral trees involves the ocean dispersal of seeds, rafting and migratory birds.

Read About Continental Drift & Plate Tectonics

Most species are readily propagated by cuttings and are popular as "living fences" in tropical countries. Coral trees are also commonly grown as shade trees on coffee and cacao plantations of Central and South America, and are often called "madre arbol" and "madre de cacao" by local natives. Although coral beans are used in seed necklaces throughout tropical countries of the world, they are quite poisonous if eaten. Many species contain erythroidine and related alkaloids which cause paralysis and death by blocking acetylcholine receptor sites at neuromuscular synaptic junctions. This is essentially how curare works, a gummy extract from the bark and stems of a South American vine Chondodendron tomentosum, highly prized by Amazonian Indians for blowgun darts.

See Photo Of The Amazonian Curare Vine

A. Erythrina caffra
B. Erythrina sp.
C. Ormosia monosperma
D. Ormosia cruenta
E. Rhynchosia sp.
F. Rhynchosia precatoria
G. Rhynchosia sp.
H. Abrus precatorius
I. Adenanthera pavonina
J. Sophora secundiflora

A Hawaiian necklace made from coral tree seeds. This lovely necklace was for sale on the Island of Kauai for a mere $295.00!

Pod and seeds of the endemic Hawaiian coral tree called wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis).

Half-Red, Half-Black Coral Beans
Amazing Size Variation In Coral Beans
Coral Beans That Drift To Distant Shores
Read About Coral Tree Flowers & Pollination

7. Red and Black Prayer Beads

Several other attractive seeds from the legume family (Fabaceae) are used for necklaces in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. The most spectacular are from the striking half-red, half-black seeds of precatory bean (Abrus precatorius) and the very similar vine, Rhynchosia precatoria. Although the seeds of both species may be toxic if ingested, those of precatory bean are particularly dangerous due to insidious proteins called lectins. Lectins can cause red blood cells to clump together (agglutinate) and may stimulate abnormal cell division in quiescent B and T-lymphocytes. Because of their hard seed coat, the seeds are especially potent when ground up. One thoroughly masticated seed could be fatal to an adult human. In spite of their reputation as one of the world's most deadly seeds, precatory beans are certainly one of the most beautiful seeds on earth. They are sometimes called prayer beans or rosary beans and have been used for rosaries. Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius.

Pod and striking seeds of rosary bean (Abrus precatorius), one of the most beautiful and deadliest seeds on earth. They are often made into bracelets and earrings in Central America. In the movie "Blue Lagoon," Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins supposedly ate the seeds of Abrus precatorius in order to commit suicide.

Read About The Deadliest Seeds On Earth

Larger half-red, half-black seeds commonly used in seed jewelry (especially the Caribbean and tropical America) come from tall rain forest trees of the genus (Ormosia). There are several species of Ormosia native to the new world tropics, but some of the largest seeds probably come from O. monosperma, a large tree native to the Lesser Antilles, including the beautiful garden island of Dominica.

A dried, dehiscent pod and seed of Ormosia monosperma from the rain forest of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles.

Beautiful seeds of Ormosia monosperma. They are produced one seed per pod.

A lovely Ormosia necklace, probably made from Ormosia monosperma.

See Another Ormosia From The West Indies

8. Shiny Red Circassian Seeds

Another small leguminous tree of the Caribbean, called "jumbie bead" (Adenanthera pavonina) produces brilliant red, shiny seeds that are remarkably similar in general appearance to SudafedŽ tablets. Jumbie beads make striking red necklaces and are apparently innocuous compared to other poisonous red-seeded species. An individual seed also has a remarkably constant weight of about four grains (0.26 gram). In early times they were known as Circassian seeds and were used by goldsmiths throughout Asia as a standard measure for weighing gold, silver and diamonds.

Circassian Seeds: Magical Beans From India
Another Adenanthera Seed With A Black Spot

9. Sea Beans: Ocean Drift Seeds

Tropical forests of the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America are rich in beautiful seeds, many of which are washed by torrential rains into the sea where they drift to foreign shores. Sea beans (Mucuna and Dioclea) are favorite seeds for necklaces, primarily because of their striking multi-layered appearance and amazing durability. In fact, they can be polished in a stone tumbler, as you would polish agate and quartz, or by using tin oxide and a buffing wheel. Polished sea bean pendants sometimes contain the embossed initials of the proud owner.

Sea beans are also called "hamburger seeds" because of the unusual central layer (hilum) where they were connected inside the bean pod. The Spanish name for sea bean is "ojo de buey" because of its striking resemblance to the eye of a bull. Sea beans are produced by climbing woody vines (lianas) that twine through the tropical forest like a botanical boa constrictor. The seed pods are covered with microscopic velvety hairs (trichomes) that can be extremely painful--especially if they get into your eyes. In the Caribbean and Central America, the hairs were stirred into honey or syrup as a remedy to expel intestinal parasites.

Assorted sea beans (Mucuna) and sea purses (Dioclea) from the Caribbean coast of Yucatan, Mexico. They are sometimes called "hamburger seeds" because of their peculiar shape and central layer (hilum). Seeds of Mucuna have a thicker (wider) hilum layer.

Read About Sea Beans Pollinated By Bats
Read About Ocean Drift Seeds Of The World

10. The Fabulous Mary's Bean

In San Jose, Costa Rica, sea beans are sold by street vendors along with another unusual drift seed called Mary's bean (Merremia discoidesperma). Unlike the true sea beans, the Mary's bean is produced by a beach vine of the morning-glory family (Convolvulaceae). The vine is native to beaches of Central America, and the seeds occasionally drift ashore on beaches of southern Florida. In northern Europe the Mary's bean was a special find to pious beachcombers. The seed had obviously survived the ocean and would extend its protection to anyone lucky enough to own one. It is also called crucifixion bean because of the cross etched on one side. A woman in labor was assured an easy delivery if she clenched a Mary's bean in her hand. Seeds were handed down from mother to daughter as treasured keepsakes. The Mary's bean is also one of the most elusive of all drift seeds. After searching diligently on several Palomar College field trips to the Caribbean, a Mary's bean turned up in my martini--a gift from my biology students. [Actually I suspected a prank because the bogus "olive" was much too buoyant.]

Mary's Bean: Drift Seed Of The New World Tropics

11. Sea Hearts: Ocean Voyagers

Some sea beans resemble large wooden hearts and are called sea hearts (Entada gigas). They are produced in huge bean pods up to 6 feet long that hang from a tropical vine. The vines usually grow along freshwater streams, and the seeds, falling into these streams, are carried to the ocean. Some sea hearts cross the Atlantic Ocean from tropical Africa; then they are carried to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, eventually drifting ashore on beaches of southern Florida. Others continue their ocean journey to beaches of northern Europe. With their protective, waterproof coat they can survive years at sea, and often will still grow if planted in soil. To insure germination the thick woody seed coat must be scored with a hacksaw blade so the embryo inside can absorb water. In my experience they grow upward very rapidly (up to an inch a day), but do poorly when I try to train them on a trellis or curtain rod. Sea hearts are highly prized by beachcombers and are unquestionably the ultimate unique gift for Valentine's Day.

A lovely sea heart necklace (Entada gigas). This marvelous seed is the perfect gift for that special person on Valentine's Day.

Sea Hearts: The World's Longest Bean Pod

Sea hearts have a long and colorful history in fact and fiction. It is said that the sea heart provided inspiration to Christopher Columbus and led him to set forth in search of lands to the west. In fact, the sea heart is called favas de Colom, or "Columbus bean," by Portuguese residents of the Azores in the North Atlantic. In Norway a bitter tea was made from sea hearts to relieve pain during childbirth. In England, sea hearts were used as teething rings and as good luck charms for sailors embarking on a long ocean voyage. Sea hearts and a similar rectangular seed (Entada phaseoloides) were commonly used in Norway and northern Europe for snuffboxes and lockets. The seeds were cut in half, the contents removed, and the woody seed coats hinged together. Their intrinsic beauty was enhanced with a fine finish of tung oil or lacquer.

12. Nickernuts: Marbles of the New World Tropics

Many other drift seeds originate on tropical beaches of the West Indies and follow the Gulf Stream to the North Atlantic. Hebrides Islanders off the coast of Scotland wore marblelike nickernut seeds as an amulet to ward off evil spirits. Known in the Hebrides as the white Indian nut, the seeds supposedly had other magical powers including a cure for dysentery when the powdered seed embryo was taken with boiled milk. Nickernuts grow wild on beaches of many Caribbean islands and are produced within unusual prickly pods on a scrambling or climbing shrub. Three species with attractive yellow or gray seeds (Caesalpinia major, C. ciliata and C. bonduc) are commonly used for necklaces and bracelets, often mixed with the distinctive red and black seeds of rosary bean and elongate seeds from the huge pods of royal poinciana (Delonix regia).

Gray nickernuts (Caesalpinia bonduc) and yellow nickernuts (probably C. ciliata) are commonly strung into necklaces and earrings in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. The marblelike seeds typically come in pairs in a spiny pod. The chocolate brown seeds were collected on the island of Antigua and may be C. ciliata or C. major. The small, flattened, shiny brown seeds adjacent to yellow nickernuts (middle left) are wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala).

Read About The Amazing Nickernuts
See Board Game Played With Nickernuts

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, drilled nickernuts are sold by street vendors along with a variety of other seeds and herbs, including the striking red and black seeds of the necklace tree (Ormosia monosperma). The nickernuts are strung and worn as bracelets for good luck and to ward off the devil. In the Caribbean, nickernuts are used as marbles by native islanders and have been exported to Europe for buttons. In fact, nicker is an old English name for marble. The curious name "burning bean" comes from the fact that when the seed is rubbed vigorously on clothing it becomes quite hot. Touching a hot seed to the skin of an unsuspecting victim is a favorite game of children.

13. Wild Tamarind: Shiny Brown Seeds For Jewelry

Weedy plants are occasionally used for seed necklaces in the tropics. The wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala) is a common shrub along roadsides throughout tropical regions of the new world. It is a prolific seed producer--with 12,000 seeds to a pound. The shiny brown seeds are softened in boiling water and strung on fishing line to make attractive necklaces and belts with intricate designs. The leaves and flattened seed pods make a high protein fodder for livestock, but horses, donkeys and hogs lose hair if they consume the plant. The seeds and foliage of Leucaena contain large amounts of the amino acid mimosine, which causes inhibition of hair growth and loss of hair in laboratory mice.]

See The Shiny Brown Seeds Of Wild Tamarind

Wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala) is also a common introduced shrub along roadsides in the Hawaiian islands. The seeds are commonly labeled as "koa" seeds and are strung into elaborate necklaces. Seeds of the native koa tree (Acacia koa) are also used in Hawaiian necklaces. Koa seeds are shiny-brown like the seeds of wild tamarind, but they tend to be more circular in outline.

See Beautiful Wood & Seeds Of The Koa Tree

14. Deadly Datura Seeds For Jewelry

In Costa Rica, hundreds of tiny brown seeds from a jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) are strung with pieces of brightly-colored felt to make an unusual and very attractive necklace. Although there are many species of shrubby and tree-like jimsonweeds, this particular species is a cosmopolitan annual weed and a prolific seed-producer. Hundreds of seeds are produced in spiny capsules, sometimes called "thorn-apples." In 1676, British Soldiers stationed in Jamestown, Virginia, became intoxicated by D. stramonium when it was inadvertently (or intentionally) included in their salads by the regimental cooks. The episode was widely publicized and the plant culprit became known as "Jamestown weed," and later as jimsonweed.

The infamous jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) produces hundreds of tiny brown seeds inside a spiny capsule. In Costa Rica the seeds are strung with pieces of brightly-colored felt to make a very attractive and unusual necklace.

Read All About The Deadly Datura
See Moth That Pollinates Deadly Datura

Of all the wild plants utilized in one way or another by people, D. stramonium certainly has one of the most sinister historical backgrounds, particularly in medieval Europe. Through the centuries this innocent-appearing plant has been involved in witchcraft and demonology, in sly but cunning seductions and in sexual orgies. Other species of Datura have been an important ceremonial plant in several Native American cultures and have provided some valuable clinical drugs.

15. Guanacaste Seeds From Costa Rica

One of the most remarkable legumes of the New World tropics is the guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), a huge canopy tree of the tropical rain forest. This beautiful tree with fernlike twice-pinnate leaves is also naturalized in southern Baja California and the Hawaiian Islands. The word guanacaste, which is also the name of the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, is of Nahuatl origin and signifies "ear tree." The peculiar coiled, leathery pods superficially resemble the shape of a human ear. The nutritious pods are used for stock feed and the bark and wood are used for tanning and lumber. One of the most interesting uses involves the hard, woody seeds which litter the ground beneath large trees. Guanacaste seeds have a distinctive brown "eye" and make some of the most striking seed jewelry in North America, especially when they are enhanced with a fine finish of tung oil or lacquer. In Costa Rica the seeds are used in a variety of bracelets, necklaces and earrings, often mixed with distinctive red and black rosary beans.

The beautiful seeds of the guanacaste or "ear tree" (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) make some of the most striking seed jewelry in Central America. The unusual pods superficially resemble the shape of a human ear.

16. The Amazing Seeds From Palms

The seeds and hard, stony endocarps of several palms native to the luxuriant Napo River rain forest in Ecuador are used for necklaces. One of the most striking is the starnut palm (Astrocaryum huicungo), so named because the seed-bearing endocarps have etched, starlike designs around the three pores at the basal end. Starnut palms are unmistakable in the dense rain forest with long, sharp spines up to five inches long. The bony, top-shaped endocarps are polished and made into necklaces by Indians along the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. They are often strung with shiny gray seeds of Job's tears and the distinctive red and black seeds of the necklace tree (Ormosia). Some of the Amazonian necklaces are also adorned with brightly colored parrot feathers, claws and teeth of jaguars, and even a dried piranha. Peruvian Indians hunt monkeys for food and use the monkey bones for necklaces. Hollow, slender bones are often strung with bright red seeds from a species of necklace tree (Ormosia) or from the tropical vine (Rhynchosia). Sometimes the entire monkey skull is displayed in the necklace. Peruvian Indians also use claws from the giant anteater or lesser anteater (tamandua), strung with metallic leg segments from a tropical beetle.

A necklace from the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon River in Ecuador. The large seed-bearing fruits and endocarps are from the starnut palm (Astrocaryum huicungo). This palm is named from the starlike design surrounding the three germination pores on the endocarps

See Necklace Made From Betel Nuts
See Necklace Made From Beetle Bodies
See Necklace Strung With Anteater Claws
See Necklace Strung With A Dried Piranha
See Some Tropical Palm Woody Endocarps

17. Vegetable Ivory From Palm Seeds

The white, dried endosperm of some palm seeds contains a substance called hemicellulose that becomes so hard and dense that it is used as "vegetable ivory" for buttons, chessmen and in the art of scrimshaw. It can be carved and polished like ivory tusks, without endangering whales, elephants and walruses. Like wood, vegetable ivory is essentially composed of thick-walled dead cells; however, unlike grainy hardwoods it has a texture and hardness similar to ivory. In fact, vegetable ivory is remarkably dense, with a rating of roughly 2.5 on the Moh scale of mineral hardness. [Compare this rating with 3.5 for a copper penny and 10 for diamond.] Several tropical palms are known to produce vegetable ivory, but one of the most important is Phytelephas aequatorialis, also known as the ivory-nut palm. The generic name Phytelephas literally means "elephant plant." It is derived from the Greek words phyton (plant) and elephas (elephant). The specific epithet aequatorialis refers to the equatorial region where this palm is native. Another name used by some authors is P. macrocarpa, in which the specific epithet macrocarpa refers to the large fruits bearing ivorylike nuts. This beautiful palm with huge pinnate leaves grows wild along the Napo River in Ecuador, a major tributary of the Amazon. Four or more large seeds are produced in a spiny fruit the size of a grapefruit. The seeds are so hard that it requires a hacksaw to cut one in half. Called "taguas" by local Indians of the Napo River, the endosperm of immature seeds is pulpy and sweet--food for people and animals of the region.

Read About The Vegetable Ivory Palm

There are several other palm species with large, extremely hard seeds that are used for vegetable ivory. The Caroline ivory-nut palm (Metroxylon amicorum) is native to the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. The unusual one-seeded fruits are covered with numerous shiny brown scales and superficially resemble a closed pine cone. Another source of vegetable ivory is Hyphaene ventricosa, a beautiful African palm native to islands and banks of the Zambesi River in the vicinity of Victoria Falls. The seeds are smaller than the other two species, but the bony endosperm is just as hard. The fruits of Hyphaene palms contain a sweet, juicy outer pulp that tastes like gingerbread and is the source of the name, gingerbread palm. Unlike other palms, they have an unusual branching growth habit with forked trunks.

Most consumers of ivory would probably buy jewelry and carved articles made from vegetable ivory. If their desire for ivory is based on its rarity and exotic origin, then vegetable ivory should be equally acceptable. This is especially true considering the endangered status of tropical rain forests where ivory-nut palms grow. Very few ivory lovers could tell whether beautiful rings, necklaces, belt buckles and carved knife handles are made from the modified dentin of enlarged elephant incisors or the dried hemicellulose of palm seeds. The only drawback of ivory-nuts is their size. Average seeds are about two inches (5 cm) long, and this would limit the size of articles made from them. However, milled nuts can be fused into a larger, solid mass with modern bonding cements under heat and pressure.

Left Image: A lovely vegetable ivory necklace made from polished seeds of the ivory-nut palm (Phytelephas aequatorialis).

18. The Alleged Coconut Pearl

Most people think of natural jewelry as pearls, shiny pieces of coral, or precious and semiprecious stones, polished and set in gold or silver. But there are botanical gems that rival some of these minerals in value and beauty. Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient forests that thrived millions of years ago. During the fossilization process, the resins are literally metamorphosed into a hard, durable, plastic-like polymer. Often the amber contains insects and spiders 30 to 50 million years old (or older), perfectly preserved in nature's transparent tomb. Vegetable ivory is a hemicellulose polymer that comprises the endosperm of some palm seeds. With a hardness and luster of true ivory, it can be polished and used in jewely. Jet is a black mineral similar to hardened coal, formed by the carbonization of ancient conifer forests buried beneath the sea. It takes a high polish and makes beautiful pendants and necklaces. But of all these botanical jewels, the most controversial is the legendary "coconut pearl" that is reportedly found inside coconuts (Cocos nucifera).

The famous "Maharajah coconut pearl" sitting in the shell of a coconut. This alleged botanical jewel was on display at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in the city of Coral Gables, Florida. The "pearl" given to Dr. Fairchild was not in its original coconut, so there is some doubt as to its authenticity.

Coconut on a beach in Belize.

The origin of the generic name for coconut "Cocos" may be traced to the three germination pores on the endocarp layer surrounding the seed. According to R. Sokolov (Natural History Oct. 1989), Portuguese and Spanish traders introduced the coconut into West Africa after 1500. They called it "coco" from the Portuguese or Spanish slang word for monkey face, supposedly because of the eye pattern on the endocarp and the brown, fibrous hair (husk). Coconuts were later introduced into the Americas by these early traders. The center of origin for ocean-dispersed coconuts appears to be the Indo-Malaysian region.

According to a display at Fairchild Tropical Garden, coconut pearls come from "blind coconuts," so called because the inner nut or endocarp does not have the three characteristic "eyes" (germination pores) of a typical coconut. Without a germination pore the embryonic growth within the hard-shelled nut is supposedly retarded, and this abnormal situation may in some unknown way be related to the formation of a stone. Although there are many varieties of coconuts, they all belong to either of two major types known as niu kafa and niu vai. The niu kafa type have an elongate, angular fruit, up to six inches in diameter, with a small egg-shaped nut surrounded by an unusually thick husk. niu vai coconuts have a larger more spherical fruit, up to ten inches in diameter, with a larger spherical nut inside a thin husk. According to Hugh C. Harries (Botanical Review Vol. 44, 1978), the niu kafa type represents the ancestral, naturally-evolved, wild-type coconut, disseminated by floating. The niu vai type was derived by domestic selection for increased endosperm ("meat" and "milk") and is widely dispersed and cultivated by humans. Based upon tertiary fossil evidence in the South Pacific (long before the voyages of ancient mariners) and convincing dispersal studies by Harries and his associates, coconut palms probably originated on tropical islands of the Indo-Malaysian region.

See The Ocean Dispersal Of Wild Niu Kafa Coconuts

Photo-Illustration of a Germinated Coconut

Sprouting fruit of a coconut Cocos nucifera. The hard inner layer (endocarp) contains the actual seed composed of a minute embryo and food storage tissue (endosperm). The seed is surrounded by an outer brown layer called the seed coat or testa. This is the brown material that adheres to the white "meat" or endosperm when it is removed from the endocarp shell. Pieces of the woody endocarp are polished and made into earrings and necklaces. The base of the embryo (cotyledon) swells into an absorbing organ that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The endocarp has three germination pores, one functional pore and two plugged pores. [In "blind coconuts" all three pores are plugged.] The three pores represent three carpels, typical of the palm family (Arecaceae). Just inside the functional germination pore is a minute embryo embedded in the endosperm tissue. During germination, a spongy mass develps from the base of the embryo and fills the seed cavity. This mass of tissue is called the "coconut apple" and is essentially the functional cotyledon of the seed. In some older references this cotyledon mass is referred to as a haustorium, the organ of absorption in parasitic flowering plants. [The white color in photo has been altered in order to clearly differentiate it from the endosperm.] It dissolves and absorbs the nutrient-rich endosperm tissue to supply the developing shoot with sugars and minerals. Eventualy, the developing palm becomes self sufficient, as its leaves produce sugars through photosynthesis and its roots absorb minerals from the soil. The coconut "apple" is rich in sugars and is a sweet delicacy in tropical countries. The endosperm is the coconut "meat" which is dried and sold as "copra." The coconut "water" is multinucleate liquid endosperm inside green coconuts that has not developed into solid tissue composed of cells. It is incorrectly called "coconut milk" in some references. Before the liquid endosperm forms a solid "meat" it is jellylike and may be eaten with a spoon. This stage of the endosperm development is called "spoon meat." The "coconut milk" used in many Asian recipes is made by soaking grated coconut meat in water and squeezing out the oil-rich liquid. "Coir" fibers are derived from the fibrous mesocarp. The saturated fat called "coconut oil" is derived from the meaty endosperm.

Close-up view through the inside of a coconut seed showing a small, cylindrical embryo (A) embedded in the fleshy meat or endosperm (B). The base of the embryo (pointing into the coconut) swells into an absorbing organ (cotyledon) that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The wall of the endocarp (C) is a hard, woody layer that makes up the inner part of the fruit wall. The thick, fibrous husk (mesocarp) that surrounds the endocarp has been removed. The alleged coconut "pearl" apparently develops where the embryo is located.

The polished coconut endocarp is made into earrings and other jewelry.
In fact, sections of entire endocarps are cleverly fashioned into purses.
In 1925, Dr. F.W.T. Hunger published an article about coconut pearls for the prestigious journal Nature Vol. 115: 138-139. He described two eyewitness accounts of pearls actually observed inside of coconuts, one from Dr. J.G.F. Riedel in Celebes and one from a coconut plantation in Borneo. Dr. Hunger also acquired eight blind coconuts from the Tanimbar Islands (Moluccas) of Indonesia, one of which contained a pearl embedded in the endosperm. He concluded that the pearl was the remnants of a calcified haustorium (cotyledon mass) in a blind coconut that was unable to germinate: "... the newly formed haustorium becomes encrusted under the influence of the coco-nut milk [endosperm] with calcium salts, although it still remains unexplained why the cocos-pearl consists almost entirely of calcium carbonate, while neither the cocos-kernel nor the coco-milk contain this carbonate." The previous statement is untenable in my opinion. How could multinucleate coconut water (liquid endosperm) and a pulpy, cellular mass composed of cellulose and protein turn into a dense calcareous stone, unless it was buried in sediment for centuries and petrified by mineral replacement. The alleged pearl apparently had no evidence of cellular or vascular tissue indicative of cotyledon tissue. Dr. Hunger also cites a coconut plantation where approximately three million coconuts were opened annually for years, and yet no pearls were ever found.

In 1939, Dutch zoologist A. Reyne, chief of the Coco-nut Research Station at Menado, Celebes, studied the structure of so-called coconut pearls in public and private collections, and concluded that they were pearls from giant clams of the genus Tridacna. He examined the concentric striations (lamellae) of the pearls, including thin sections mounted on microscope slides. His research was published in the journal Annales Jardin Botanique de Buitenzorg Vol. 49: 43-48. Eight years later, Reyne published a detailed article about the structure of the shells and pearls of clams in the Dutch journal Arch. Netherlands Zoology Vol. 8: 206-242 (1947). According to Dr. Reyne, fraudulent coconut pearls are common and widespread throughout Malaysia, particularly Celebes. He examined the notorious pearl of Dr. Riedel and concluded that it came from a giant clam. Regarding Dr. Hunger's famous coconut pearl: "I am convinced that it is a Tridacna-pearl, as it shows a bipolar structure with the peculiar white veins of the crossed lamellar structure clearly developed. It seems likely that Dr. H., who as a botanist was not familiar with Tridacna-pearls, has become the victim of some trick of the natives."

David Fairchild's original discovery of his alleged coconut pearl is described in his book Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds From the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk "Chêng Ho." It was published in 1943 by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Apparently Fairchild did not have that actual "blind coconut" from which the pearl was derived. His photo of the pearl appears on page 128 with the folowing caption: "This rare jewel is pictured about as it would be found in the white meat of a coconut near the end where the sprout comes out through the pore." In chapter 17, Dr. Fairchild states: "The Coco pearl is so rare that you may open 750,000 nuts without finding one." I have no idea how Fairchild came up with 750,000, the number could just as well have been a million. I have also seen published estimates as low as one in 2,000. Although hundreds of millions of coconuts are harvested annually for food (copra) and fiber (coir), there appears to be no records of coconut pearls showing up in the coconut industry. Based on published estimates for the rarity of coconut pearls, there should be at least several hundred produced each year.

The age-old question "do coconut pearls exist?" may forever be open for discussion; however, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the proof is lacking here. Perhaps some so-called coconut pearls are really pearls of giant clams or another mollusk. The meticulous writings of naturalists such as Georg Eberhard Rumphius indicate they are real; however, these naturalists did not see the original "blind coconuts" from which the pearls were extracted. According to biochemist Abraham D. Krikorian (Principes Vol. 26, 1982), who has studied the writings of the distinguished 17th century naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius, the alleged "pearls" appear to be calcareous. Rumphius reported that coconut stones readily lose their luster when boiled in a weak acid solution of vinegar or lemon juice, suggesting that they may be slowly dissolving. The pearl apparently develops in the embryonic region of the coconut, but there is no explanation for how such a smooth, spherical or oblong structure could be formed inside of a coconut.

Intracellular crystals of calcium carbonate and calcium oxalate are fairly common throughout the plant kingdom. Under a compound microscope, the glistening crystals resemble many-faceted diamonds. The stems of some bamboos, including spiny bamboo (Bambusa bambos), contain silica concretions composed of silicon dioxide. Some palm seeds contain vegetable ivory, hardened endosperm tissue containing a polysaccharide called hemicellulose. Like wood, vegetable ivory is essentially composed of dead cells; however, unlike grainy hardwoods it has a texture and hardness similar to ivory. In fact, vegetable ivory is remarkably dense, with a rating of roughly 2.5 on the scale of mineral hardness. Ivory-nuts can be polished in a stone tumbler, as you would polish agates and quartz, or by using tin oxide and a buffing wheel. Perhaps some reports of hard, white objects inside coconuts are remnants of dried endosperm tissue.

See An Intracellular Crystal Of Calcium Oxalate
See Wayne's Word Aticle About Vegetable Ivory
See The Remarkable Grass Known As Bamboo

In mollusks, a calcareous concretion (pearl) is often produced when a foreign object becomes lodged between the shell and outer flesh (mantle) of a bivalve. Pearls can also be formed in univalves, such as conchs and whelks. Foreign objects can be naturally-occurring, or they may be induced, such as in cultured pearls of oysters. The mantle epidermis responds by encapsulating the object within thin concentric layers of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate known as nacre or mother-of-pearl. Aragonite has unique optical properties that account for the light refraction and beautiful opalescence of nacre. The crystalline structure of aragonite is orthorhombic, with three trangular sides that act as tiny prisms. A number of mollusks that do not produce commercially valuable pearls still have iridescent nacreous layers lining their shells that are used to make mother-of-pearl jewelry. According to G. Brown, S.M.B. Kelly and J. Snow (The Australian Gemologist Vol. 16, 1988), aragonite pearls from the clams Tridacna and Hippopus have been fraudulently transplanted into coconuts. These pearls can be readily identified using illumination studies with high intensity fiber optic light, x-ray diffraction, and comparisons of their refractive index and specific gravity. In fact, the above authors reported a fraudulent coconut pearl manufactured from a sea shell.

Author Neville S. Haile traveled extensively in Malaysia in search of coconut pearls. In Jakarta he purchased a white, pear-shaped stone called "mastika kelapa," supposedly obtained from a coconut. The name mastika (also spelled mestika or mostika) refers to rare Malaysian stones found inside fruits. Striations on the stone together with its specific gravity revelaed that it was composed of aragonite, the same material found in mollusk shells. Haile examined other coconut pearls in collections and published his conclusions in The Straits Times Annual (1974). According to Haile, there are at least three kinds of objects sold as coconut pearls: (1) "Rather crude artifacts made from shell (probably slightly translucent, banded giant clam shell) with rather crude incised grooves." This type fits his original Jakarta purchase. (2) "Chalky white, finely banded and finely grooved pearls probably also artifacts of shell, either young giant clam, or some other kind of shell." (3) "Pearls from mollusks, including giant clams." Haile also states that although a number of bogus coconut pearls have been exposed, this does not disprove the existence of genuine ones. In my opinion, there is substantial evidence that pearls are not produced inside coconuts. In fact, I am astounded that some botanical references still perpetuate secondhand evidence for their existence. The existence of coconut pearls seems to be based on faith rather than objective scientific evidence.

Alleged coconut pearls are in collections at two prestigious botanical gardens, including Kew and Fairchild Tropical Garden. The Kew pearl is more oblong in shape, compared with the spherical Maharaja pearl at Fairchild. These large, opaque "pearls" are not inside their original coconuts so they could have come from another source, possibly a giant clam. Detailed examinations have clearly shown that alleged coconut pearls in public and private collections have concentric aragonite layers as in true molluskan pearls. In fact, fraudulent coconut pearls have been thoroughly studied by Dr. A. Reyne and others, particularly pearls originating in Celebes. It is interesting to note that Dr. Fairchild's famous Maharaja coconut pearl also came from Celebes.

It is difficult to place a monetary value on a so-called coconut pearl without knowing its origin and composition. In his classic six-volume work entitled Herbarium Amboinense (1741-1750), Rumphius described and illustrated exquisite coconut pearls owned by Malaysian dynasties, often mounted in jeweled settings of gold and silver. Apparently poreless (blind) coconuts bring high prices in the Orient and are only found in the collections of the wealthy Radjas and merchants. Formerly, all "blind" coconuts belonged to the Radja and were not the property of those who found them.

Alleged Coconut Pearl In Singapore Priced At $60,000 U.S.

Detailed examinations could determine if alleged coconut pearls have the concentric aragonite layers as in true molluskan pearls. This has apparently already been done by the Dutch zoologist A. Reyne who studied the structure of so-called coconut pearls in public and private collections, and concluded that they were the pearls of giant clams of the genus Tridacna. Microscopic examinations could also determine if they have the dense, cellular structure of vegetable ivory. Comparisons of their refractive index and specific gravity could determine if they are composed of aragonite as in the pearls and shells of mollusks. But the most conclusive test of all would be to actually find one inside a coconut first hand. This seems very unlikely considering the fact that millions of coconuts are opened year year in plantations and no pearls have been found. Most eyewitness records of coconut pearls cited in the literature are secondhand accounts that were not observed by the authors of these articles. There are a few firsthand, published accounts of pearls observed inside coconuts, but most of these pearls have been shown to be fraudulent. The existence of coconut pearls may be another myth like the "Loch Ness Monster" and "Bigfoot," only in the case of coconut pearls, realistic fabrications will always be around to cloud the truth.

References About Coconut Pearls

  1. Brown, G, S.M.B. Kelly, and J. Snow. 1988. "A Coconut Pearl?" The Australian Gemologist 16 (10): 361-362.

  2. Corner, E.J.H. 1966. The Natural History of Palms. University of California Press, Berkeley.

  3. Fairchild, D. 1943. Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds From the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk "Cheng Ho." Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

  4. Haile, N.S. 1974. "The Captivating Quest for the Mysterious Coconut Pearl." The Straits Times Annual: 75-77, 159.

  5. Harries, H.C. 1978. "The Evolution, Dissemination and Classification of Cocos nucifera L." Botanical Review 44: 265-320.

  6. Heiser, C.B. Jr. 1973. Seed to Civilization: The Story of Man's Food. W.H. freeman and Company, San Francisco.

  7. Hunger, F.W.T. 1925. "Nature and Origin of Coco-Nut Pearls." Nature 115 (2882): 138- 139.

  8. Krikorian, A.D. 1982. "Coconut "Stones" or "Pearls": Early Descriptions by Alzina, Kamel and Rumphius." Principes 26 (3): 107-121.

  9. Reyne, A. 1939. "Coconut Peals." Ann. Jardin bot de Buitenzorg 49: 43-48.

  10. Reyne, A. 1947. "On the Structure of Shells and Pearls of Tridacna squamosa (Lam.) and Hippopus hippopus (Linn.)." Arch. Netherlands Zoology 8: 206-242.

  11. Rumphius, G.E. 1741-1750. Herbarium Amboinense. Volumes 1-6. Den Haag, Amsterdam.

19. Disclaimer: Authenticity Of Coconut Pearls

If You Are Considering The Purchase Of One Of
These Plant "Gems," Please Click On This Link

20. Beautiful Kukui Nuts From Hawaii

Another source of very unusual and beautiful necklaces are the Polynesian Islands of Hawaii and Tahiti. Although the candlenut tree (Aleurites molucanna) is native to Asia, it has been spread by people throughout the tropical Pacific because its seeds are rich in oil. The valuable oil expressed from seeds is used as a light source and as a mild cathartic. In the Hawaiian Islands the hard-shelled seeds are known as "kukui nuts" and are polished and made into shiny dark brown or black bracelets and necklaces. In fact, the hard angular seed coats take such a brilliant luster that they resemble gemstones rather than seeds. [Some authorities consider the woody seed coat to be the endocarp layer of a drupaceous nut.] Candlenut seeds occasionally drift ashore on islands of the Caribbean and are known locally as "Jamaican walnuts" because of their superficial resemblance to an unshelled walnut. Tung oil, considered by some woodworkers to be the world's finest finish, is also produced from the seeds of a related tree (Aleurites fordii).

A Hawaiian kukui nut necklace, made from the polished hard-shelled seeds of the candlenut tree (Aleurites molucanna). In Caribbean waters the durable drift seeds are known as "Jamaican walnuts."

See The Amazing Tung Oil Tree
See More Photos Of Kukui Nuts

21. Tianina Seed Necklaces From Tahiti

In Tahiti, the woody seed-bearing endocarps of "tianina" or lantern tree (Hernandia nymphaeifolia) are polished by native islanders and made into shiny brown necklaces. The seeds are so perfectly round that they resemble a string of marbles or machine-made beads. Each seed is produced in a remarkable fruit that resembles a fleshy red or white lantern. Another common Polynesian beach plant with unusual prop roots and large pineapple-shaped fruits is the screwpine or pandanus (Pandanus tectorius). The fruits are composed of hard, woody sections called "keys," each containing edible seeds. Pandanus keys are abundant on beaches of the South Pacific. They often become shiny red and are used to make colorful necklaces and leis.

A Polynesian necklace made from the polished, seed-bearing endocarps (lower right) of "tianina" or lantern tree (Hernandia nymphaeifolia).

The fruit of "tianina" or lantern tree (Hernandia nymphaeifolia) on the Polynesian island of Moorea. Each fleshy "lantern" contains a woody, seed-bearing endocarp. The marble-like endocarps are polished and strung into necklaces.

Go To Plant Fiber Article And Read About Pandanus

22. West Indian Mahogany and Sandbox Trees

There are many other plant structures cleverly crafted into unusual botanical jewelry. The West Indies mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) is a large tree of the Caribbean region with pods that split into woody sections releasing hundreds of winged seeds. In the Virgin Islands, sections of young mahogany pods are polished and made into earrings. Attractive earrings are also made from the polished shell (endocarp) surrounding coconut seeds. Another Caribbean tree (Hura crepitans) with an unmistakable trunk and limbs covered by sharp black thorns grows in forested areas and along roadsides. It is sometimes called "monkey pistol" because the unusual pumpkin-shaped seed capsule forcibly ejects seeds. The capsule literally explodes like a small grenade, only in this case the shrapnel consists of dozens of flat, circular seeds and many small crescent-shaped sections. Each section has the general shape of a porpoise or dolphin as it bounds through the water. The woody sections are made into earrings and clever pins. This tree is also called "sandbox tree" because the seed capsule was used to hold sand as a blotter before the advent of blotters and ball point pens.

Seed capsule of the West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) showing the five sections (carpels) that separate to release the winged seeds. Polished carpels from small capsules are fashioned into attractive earrings.

Exploding Seed Capsule Of The Sandbox Tree

23. The Blue Marble Tree

The genus Elaeocarpus includes about 60 species of trees in the Old World tropics. It belongs to the elaeocarpus family (Elaeocarpaceae), along with a dozen other genera of tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs. The fleshy drupes of some species resemble deep blue marbles. In fact, one Australian species (E. grandis) is called the "blue marble tree." It is a tall tree that is cultivated in tropical regions of the world, including the Hawaiian Islands. The drupe contains a woody, intricately sculptured endocarp that surrounds several small seeds. The endocarps are often strung into attractive necklaces and leis. They are also strung into prayer bead necklaces. According to Peter Francis (1984), the species most commonly used in India for prayer beads is E. ganitrus, also listed in some references as E. sphaericus. The endocarps are known as "rudraksha beads," and were worn by Shiva worshippers at least since the 11th century.

Striking blue fruits (drupes) of the blue marble tree (Elaeocarpus grandis). The intricately sculptured endocarps are used for necklaces and leis.

Indian prayer beads made from the seed-bearing endocarps of a species of Elaeocarpus. In India the species most commonly used for prayer beads is E. ganitrus, also listed in some references as E. sphaericus. The endocarps are also known as "rudraksha beads."

24. Necklaces From Bamboo Culms

Bamboos are very useful plants throughout the Old and New World tropics. It has been estimated that they are used by more than half of the world's human population every day. According to A. Lewington (Plants For People, 1990), more than 1000 different products are made from bamboo. Bamboo shoots are edible and are a major component of Asian dishes. Since fresh shoots are more flavorful than canned, bamboo farms have been established in the United States. In Tanzania, "bamboo wine" is made from the fermented juice of the wine bamboo (Oxytenanthera braunii). Although bamboo shoots are tender and weak, they grow very rapidly. In fact, there are records of tropical bamboos growing 100 feet in three months, an astonishing 0.0002 miles per hour! When the shoots leaf out in sunlight they become very strong and woody (lignified). Some bamboos stems have the same tensile strength as certain types of steel and are used to reinforce concrete. After about ten years the stems begin to deteriorate in humid tropical regions. Bamboo canes are used to make cooking utensils, blow guns, toys and furniture. Bamboo pulp is used to make paper, and small, polished stem segments are sometimes used in necklaces.

Polished bamboo culm sections from a species of Phyllostachys. The hollow sections are strung into attractive necklaces.

Bamboo: Remarkable Giant Grasses

Considering the marvelous diversity of plant species and human ingenuity, the possibilities for botanical jewelry are endless. As primary producers in the world ecosystem, plants provide us with food and oxygen. They also decorate our planet with verdant forests and colorful flowers, and adorn our bodies with unparalleled natural beauty.

25. Jet: A Carbonized Gemstone From Ancient Conifers

Any discussion of botanical jewels would be incomplete without mentioning a medieval gemstone called jet. Jet is a semiprecious gem excavated in Europe and formed by the metamorphosis and anaerobic fossilization of conifer wood buried under sediments in ancient seas. Ancestral forests that metamorphosed into jet date back to the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago. Some references suggest that these forests were similar to present-day araucaria forests in South America; however, it seems unlikely that jet originated from a single family of conifers since coal deposits are formed from a variety of decayed woods. Chemically, jet it is a hard, carbonized form of bituminous coal with a density similar to anthracite coal. Anthracite can be readily identified by its metallic luster. Jet takes a high polish and has been used for shiny black jewelry for thousands of years. It has a specific gravity of 1.3, almost as hard as the ironwood called lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale). Jet became very popular during the mid 19th century England during the reign of Queen Victoria, and was often worn to ward off evil spirits and during times of mourning. In the first century AD, the Roman naturalist and writer Pliny described the magical and medicinal attributes of this beautiful mineral. The well known analogy of "jet" and "black" was coined by William Shakespeare in his "black as jet" from Henry VI part 2. One of the most famous areas for the mining of Victorian jet is Whitby on the rugged Northeast coast of England.

Although they are similar in hardness, anthracite has a metallic luster and jet is dull black. Jet takes a high polish and has been used in various carved jewelry, such as cameos and intaglios. The Victoria jet broach (circa 1890) was a popular item of jewelry during the 19th century.

See Amazing Trees Of The Araucaria Family
Read About The Ironwood Called Lignum Vitae
Read About Whitby Jet At the Victorian Jet Works

26. Other Links About Botanical Jewelry:

1. Indian Shot Seeds (Canna indica)
2. Water Caltrop: Horny Bull's Head
3. Ocean Drift Seeds Of The World

27. Preserving Seed Jewelry:

Seeds often become infested with the larvae of small moths (similar to grain moths) and minute beetles (called weevils). This is particularly true of relatively thin-walled seeds and fruits which are attached by lightweight line. The larvae feed on the seed tissue and can even sever the line holding the necklace together. In addition, the larvae (and some adults) bore through the seed coat, allowing winged adults to exit through small, circular tunnels. Evidence of insect infestation includes dust falling out of the seeds, exit tunnels through the seed coats, and broken necklaces in which the seeds fall apart. I have had many necklaces ruined by insects. One method of killing the insects is to place the seeds and necklaces in air tight containers with moth crystals, such as para-dichlorobenzene or napthalene. These chemicals should not be inhaled, so the containers should be stored outside of your living quarters. Many museum herbariums no longer use poisons to protect their plant specimens because of the danger to the bone marrow of botanists working with these specimens. Some museums now place all of their new herbarium material in a deep freeze for several weeks. This usually kills most insects without exposure to hazardous chemicals. I would suggest placing your seed necklaces in the freezer compartment of your refrigerator for several weeks. For especially valuable necklaces, you may want to repeat this freeze treatment every year or two, particularly if they are exposed to reinfestation by egg-laying adults.

28. References

  1. Allen, O.N. and E.K. Allen. 1981. The Leguminosae: A Source Book of Characteristics, Uses, and Nodulation. The University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin.

  2. Armstrong, W.P. 1991. "Beautiful Botanicals: Seeds For Jewelry." Ornament 15: 66-69.

  3. Armstrong, W.P. 1992. "Jewels of the Tropics." Terra 30: 26-33.

  4. Armstrong, W.P. 1992. "Nature's Bounty." Ornament 16: 66-69.

  5. Armstrong, W.P. 1993. "Botanical Jewelry." Herbalgram 29: 26-33.

  6. Armstrong, W.P. 1993. "Neotropical Amber." Ornament 17: 58-61.

  7. Armstrong, W.P. 1994. "Job's Tears." Ornament 18: 104-105.

  8. Armstrong, W.P. 1995. "Indian Shot." Ornament 18: 70-71.

  9. Armstrong, W.P. 1997. "Indian Shot." The New Forester (Dominica Minister of Agriculture) 9: 32-33.

  10. Armstrong, W.P. 1990. "Nickernuts: Travelers of the Open Sea." Pacific Horticulture 51: 39-45.

  11. Armstrong, W.P. 1990. "Seed Voyagers." Pacific Discovery 43: 32-39.

  12. Armstrong, W.P. 1990. "Valentines of the Sea." National Geographic World Number 174: 3.

  13. Armstrong, W.P. 1991. "Seed Voyagers." In: Popular Science Annual 1992, Grolier Inc., Danbury, Conn.

  14. Armstrong, W.P. 1993. "Voyages of the Sea Hearts." Zoonooz 66: 21-23.

  15. Armstrong, W.P. 1994. "Floaters." Sea Frontiers 40: 24-31.

  16. Armstrong, W.P. 1996. "Sea-Faring Seeds." Ocean Realm Summer 1996: 89-96.

  17. Arora, R.K. 1977. "Job's Tears (Coix lacryma-jobi)--a Minor Food and Fodder Crop of Northeastern India." Economic Botany 31 (3): 358-366.

  18. Buckley, R. and H. Harries. 1984. "Self-Sown Wild-Type Coconuts from Australia." Biotropica 16: 148-151.

  19. Corner, E.J.H. 1966. The Natural History of Palms. University of California Press, Berkeley.

  20. Dennis, J.V. and C.R. Gunn. 1974. "Sea-Beans: Long-Distance Drifters From the South." The Cape Naturalist 3: 40-45.

  21. Francis, Peter, Jr. 1984. "Plants as Human Adornment in India." Economic Botany 38 (2): 194-209.

  22. Gruezo, W. Sm. and H.C. Harries. 1984. "Self-Sown, Wild-Type Coconuts in the Philippines." Biotropica 16: 140-147.

  23. Gunn, C.R. 1968. "Stranded Seeds and Fruits From the Southeastern Shore of Florida." Garden Journal 18: 43-54.

  24. Gunn, C.R. 1977. "Merremia discoidesperma: Its Taxonomy and Capacity of Its Seeds for Ocean Drifting." Economic Botany 31: 237-252.

  25. Gunn, C.R. and J.V. Dennis. 1973. "Tropical and Temperate Stranded Seeds and Fruits From the Gulf of Mexico." Contributions in Marine Science 17: 111-121.

  26. Gunn, C.R. and J.V. Dennis. 1976. "World Guide to Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits." Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., New York.

  27. Harries, H.C. 1983. "The Coconut Palm, the Robber Crab and Charles Darwin: April Fool or a Curious Case of Instinct?" Principes 27: 131-137.

  28. Harries, H.C. 1992. "Biogeography of the Coconut Cocos nucifera L." Principes 36: 155-162.

  29. Ide, L.S. 2001. Hawaiian Seed Lei Making: Step-By-Step Guide. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

  30. Ide, L.S. 2000. Hawaii's Seeds and Seed Leis: An Identification Guide. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

  31. Janzen, D.H., and P.S. Martin. 1982. "Neotropical Anachronisms: The Fruits the Gomphotheres Ate." Science 215: 19-27.

  32. Krikorian, A.D. 1982. "Coconut Stones or Pearls: Early Descriptions by Alzina, Kamel and Rumphius." Principes 26: 107-121.

  33. Rosengarten, F., Jr. 1986. "Coconut." Principes 30: 47-62.

  34. Yow, C. 1998. Jewelry From Nature. Lark Books, Ashville, North Carolina.

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