Botanical Jewelry-By W. P. Armstrong

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 wisteria-like 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, which often causes 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.”

Mescal Bean/Texas Buckeye Necklace

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.

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.

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.

Erythrina Seeds

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

Hawaiian Necklace

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

Erythrina sandwicensis


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.

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.

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.

Ormosia monosperma

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

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 Sudafed® 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.

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 Indian 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.

Mucuna Dioclea

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.

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.]

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 ensure 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Datura stramonium

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.

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.

Enterolobium cyclocarpum

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.

Astrocaryum huicungo

Astrocaryum huicungo 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.

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.

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.

18. The Rare Coconut Pearl

Probably the most remarkable of all botanical jewels is produced by the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)–the legendary “coconut pearl.” There is considerable disagreement among botanists as to whether coconut pearls actually exist, or whether they are concretions from giant Tridacna clams, or figments of one’s imagination. In fact, several botany textbooks flatly state that coconut pearls are a hoax because proof of their existence is totally unfounded. However, seeing is believing–and the famous Maharajah Coconut Pearl is on display at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami. It was discovered on Celebes Island in the Java Sea and presented to Dr. David Fairchild in 1940.

The coconut pearl is certainly the rarest and most valuable of all “botanical gemstones.” In fact, its exact chemical composition has remained an enigma because most researchers are reluctant to damage one during an assay. 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 “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. From the limited available information so far, they do not appear to be the same chemical composition as vegetable ivory or the siliceous stones that form inside bamboo stems.

It’s difficult to place a monetary value on a genuine coconut pearl, but the odds of finding one in a coconut is certainly less than one in a million. To put it another way–if you cracked open and thoroughly examined one coconut every 15 minutes during a normal eight hour work day, it would take roughly 80 years to go through a million coconuts. 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.

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 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. It is likely that some of the ancient coconut pearls described by Rumphius from Malaysia and Indonesia may have come from wild-type niu kafa coconuts.

19. 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).

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.

Hernandia nymphaeifolia

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

Hernandia nymphaeifolia Fruit

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.

21. 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.

Swietenia mahogani

Swietenia mahogani 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.

22. 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 (Elaeocarpus 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 Elaeocarpus 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.

Elaeocarpus grandis

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

Indian Prayer Beads

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."

23. 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.

Bamboo culm

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

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. 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.



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

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

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

Armstrong, W.P. 1992. “Nature’s Bounty.” Ornament 16: 66-69.

Armstrong, W.P. 1993. “Botanical Jewelry.” Herbalgram 29: 26-33.

Armstrong, W.P. 1993. “Neotropical Amber.” Ornament 17: 58-61.

Armstrong, W.P. 1994. “Job’s Tears.” Ornament 18: 104-105.

Armstrong, W.P. 1995. “Indian Shot.” Ornament 18: 70-71.

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

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

Armstrong, W.P. 1990. “Seed Voyagers.” Pacific Discovery 43: 32-39.

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

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

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

Armstrong, W.P. 1994. “Floaters.” Sea Frontiers 40: 24-31.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Rosengarten, F., Jr. 1986. “Coconut.” Principes 30: 47-62.

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


Reprinted with permission from Terra Volume 30 (3): 26-33