Originating in seasonally flooded river valleys in the Caatinga region of north-eastern Brazil, this handsome palm has long been exploited for its leaves, which produce a commercially important wax.
It develops a tall palm shape, typically 10 to 15 m (33 to 50 ft) tall with a straight trunk supporting a rounded crown of blue-green, fan-shaped leaves. Leaf bases which persist on the trunk, after the old leaves are shed, are arranged in a spiral formation running from the bottom to near the top of the trunk, adding to the plant's character and ornamental interest.
The flowers are small, creamy-white and borne singly or in clusters of a few on flower spikes that are up to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall and rise above the leaves. They come into bloom in the dry season, coinciding with winter in its native range and are followed by small, round to egg-shaped fruit around 1 to 2 cm (0.4 to 0.8 in) in diameter. They are green when young, becoming dark blue or near black when ripe.
A commercially important wax, known as 'Carnauba wax' is extracted from a thin layer of wax that coats the underside of the leaf. It is valued for its high melting point, reportedly above 80 °C (176 °F), as well as its insolubility in water and its exceptional lustre when applied as polish to metal and other surfaces.
The pale, cream-coloured wax is used for making high-end waxing and polishing creams for cars, surfboards, shoes and floor polish, and as a water impermeable coating on many products, including paper and dental floss. Being edible, it is also used to give a protective, waxy coating to pharmaceutical pills, confectionery or candy, as well fresh fruit such as apples.
Carnauba wax also has application in cosmetics, mainly as a texturizer in mascara, foundation makeups, lipstick and deodorant sticks.
The traditional process of extracting the wax starts with harvesting the leaves and then storing them in a dry place to wither. As they wither, the wax cracks and falls off in flakes onto a mat that has been placed underneath. The flakes are then collected and packaged or are melted and poured into moulds. The leaves are harvested in the dry season which allows for good drying conditions and about ten leaves are harvested from each plant a year. Approximately one to two hundred leaves are needed to obtain 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of wax.
The dried leaves are also used as thatch for roofing or are woven to make baskets, bags, hats, mats and cordage.
It is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental palm, for is elegant form and its eye-catching trunk and leaves. The intricate and showy palmate leaves are also sometimes cut for use as backing greenery in large floral arrangements, where their waxy coating makes them long-lasting.
Grows naturally in seasonally flooded tropical savanna climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 17 to 23 °C, annual highs of 28 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 500 to 1500 mm and a dry season of 4 to 9 months.
New plants are grown from seed which lose their viability quickly and are slow to germinate. They are best sown soon after being harvested and the seedlings kept under light shade until they can be planted out. It performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a mildly acid to mildly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 and on sites with full sun exposure.
Although naturally self-propagating, with fallen seed reportedly forming groves of palms over time, there does not appear to be any records it escaping cultivation or naturalising anywhere. This is despite it being introduced as an ornamental into areas outside of its native range. It is listed as a low weed risk species by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
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