Plants Used for Craftwork in The Peruvian Amazon
Craftwork. It’s everywhere along the Amazon River. Every village has skilled craftspeople who can weave nuts, shells, berries into a fine collection of craftwork. Kids in the villages with plenty of time on their hands produce everything from those beaded curtains in the spy movies to bracelets, necklaces, bags and even ornamental work on blowguns.
I purchase craftwork from the Amazon rainforest and post them on my website. Visitors to the site are always interested in what materials go into their purchases and often use their craft collection as a secondary collection to show plants of the rainforest.
When I find a new seed or shell woven into someone’s handiwork I jot down the local name then cross it with Duke and Vasquez's book, Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. If Duke and Vasquez fails me, which it seldom does, I turn to Professor Juan Ruiz, professor of botany at the Universidad Nacional De La Amazonia in Iquitos, Peru and we sort it out the mystery plant over a couple of beers.
If you purchase a rosary made in the jungle, chances are the small black beads are seeds from the achira plant. Rosaries are often the first craft articles attempted by village youngsters. The achira is a pleasant light green shrub with large leaves. It decorates most villages as an ornamental, so trips to the deep jungle to find achira seeds are unnecessary. Sometimes, villagers make entire articles such as handbags from the achira's shinny black seeds and the effect is striking.
Achote, Bixa orellana
If achira seeds are not available, villagers may use the achote. Achote seeds come in a pulpy pod whose red sap is used for body paint. When dried the seeds are similar to those of the achira. Careful with the achote pods though. Stuffed into a backpack on a hot day, the pods soon begin to rot and provide homes for a host of bugs. Amateur botanists usually dump the mess along the trail.
Aguaje, Mauritia flexuosa
Aside from eating billions of aguaje fruit and tons of its squirming suri larva, people along the Peruvian Amazon use the fiber from the aguaje palm in a variety of textile and woven crafts. Although not as durable as chambira, it is softer to the touch thus finding uses in clothing and mats. The Yagua people use aguaje fiber in their traditional grass skirts and on the myriad of gourd dolls they craft in their villages.
The Yagua people fashion their characteristic spindle-shaped blowgun quivers from the leaves of the catirina palm. The craftsman lays out strips of the palm and ties them together as though he were making a mat. He then rolls up the piece then give it a certain twist that makes the quiver shape. A couple pieces of chambira chord hold the whole thing together.
Calabaza, Lagenaria siceraria
Village craftsmen use calabaza or calabash gourd for a host of items around the home—ladles, bowls for sipping mazato, scoops, etc. Craftsmen carve designs on the dried gourds for masks and rattles. Makers of gourd dolls select fist-sized calabash gourds as he heads for their dolls. Features are gotten by carving to through the brown outer surface to the lighter material inside. Hang-on-the-wall masks are often a half of a calabash carved to resemble a monkey or jaguar.
Cana Brava, Gynerium sagittatum
Fishermen use large pieces of the reed cana brava, for spears and arrows, but small fragments find their way into beadwork as spacers between beads. Cana brava grows along the river banks and its flag-like tassels catch the breeze creating a striking effect along the water’s edge.
Craftsmen along the Amazon River make spears from spike nails which they heat and back-cut with a machete to make the barbs. They then tie two or three spikes onto length of canna brava and make a fine spear for small fish.
Chambira, Astrocaryum chambira
The thread that literally holds the jungle culture together is the fiber from the chambira palm. Women in the village take the long fronds from the chambira and peel them into smaller and smaller strips to almost microscopic hairs. They then roll bundles of these fibers on their thighs and into threads of the right thickness. Village lore says that women with hairy legs are unable to make chambira chord.
Artists make bracelets and necklaces by stringing beads onto chambira threads. Larger cords find their way into a host of macramé pieces. Shoulder bags of chambira are of fine quality as are countless hammocks in jungle villages.
Hunters with blowguns use the chambira nut as a container for kapok cotton. The golf ball-size nut is dried and hollowed out through a hole in the side. Kapok is stuffed inside and a tuff pulled out ready for a hunter to wrap his dart.
To collect this ubiquitous adhesive and calk of the rainforest, craftsmen gather the copal resin by cutting the tree’s bark into chevrons then letting the copal resin seep into a container. Later, they boil down the resin to a thick mass which hardens into a lump. Craftsmen soften the copal with a hot machete and trowel the resin into a seam or onto a blowgun surface.
Copal finds it way onto the outer surfaces of the Jivaro, Socoya, and Urarina blowguns, while the Yaguas craftsman use it as an adhesive to wrap huambe skins to the outside of their blowgun barrels.
Potters use lumps of copal to shine their artwork. At night travelers through the forest find their way with the bright flame of burning copal covering the tip of their machetes. And to liven up the air of a jungle home, occupants enjoy the incense aroma of the burning resin.
Careful though and don’t let burning copal drip on your skin. The stuff is like Greek fire and will burn through skin and to places beyond.
Today brea, a common petroleum, tar has often replaced copal, but the collector and still find copal in good artwork if he is persistent.
Huambe, Philodendron solimoesense
What jungle scene is complete without hanging vines? Often as one travels in a dugout canoe through the flooded jungle he is confronted with a cascade of vines which the passengers pull aside as the canoe makes its way. These vines are of the huambe plant which craftsman bind objects together without using tape or string. The Yaguas use the skins form the huambe root to wrap the outer surface of their blowguns. Starting from a slight tear, craftsmen pull the skin from the root then wrap it on the blowgun inside out.
To add color to their beadwork, Indians use various species of Ormosia which they call huayruro. They find huayruro seeds on the jungle floor having fallen from the high branches. The red color is easy to spot, but when I look up to see from where they came, my eyes are lost in the forest canopy and the multitude of plants above.
About the size of a chickpea, when drilled and threaded into beadwork, huayruro adds highlights to the piece. For solid reds, craftsmen select Ormosia macrocalyx while O. Amazonica, called huayruro macho, yields a striking bead half red and half black.
Often I find huayruro seeds in glass jars adding a bit of color to the modest homes in the jungle.
Huito, Genipa americana
Watch out, touching the juice from the huito. It’s a potent blue-black dye that will take forever to wash off. People in the jungle use the huito to dye fabrics and woven crafts. When you see a dark blue stripe in a woven mat or basket, most likely its huito.
I’ve seen Urarina people cover their babies with the huito juice then show off their gun-metal blue kids to the neighbors.
Medical and personal applications for huito abound from hair coloring to “swollen genitals.” Careful with the latter application, though, you may have to explain the blue tint.
Inayuga, Maximiliana maripa
What looks like another palm tree turns out to be an ornery collection of thorns and spikes just waiting for the stumbling visitor to bump against. People of the jungle covet this tree, the inayuga, for it storehouse of blowgun darts. Each craftsman have his favorite location on the tree to find darts, some use the spine of the fronds while others the large husk-like branches falling from the trunk. A fine parallel grain make up the bulk of these branches, so the resourceful craftsman will split them lengthwise and with a little finishing with a pocket knife produce the perfect dart—a foot-long missile thin as a match.
Kapok, Ceiba pentandra
A huge tree that yields a delicate fiber, hunters use the kapok cotton as a kind of gasket to fit blowgun darts within the barrel. The great trees stand as beacons long the Amazon River helping boatman to navigate. All too often, though, the trees find their way to the plywood mills and the export markets.
Llanchama, Poulsenia armata
No rainforest art collection is complete without a painting on llanchama. Native people, particularly the Boras, strip the under-bark from a kind of fig tree then wash, pound and dry the thin white material, into a parchment. Boras make clothes from llanchama, inking on their traditional geometric artwork. Others secure llanchama for art of their own design. Francisco Grippa works with llanchama producing exquisite artwork for salons worldwide. Others, though, dash out velvet-Elvis stuff sold on the streets of Iquitos. Stick with the Bora´s art or if your pockets are deep enough, Grippa’s work.
Ojo de Vaca, Mucuna rostrata
As a kind of necklace medallion, artisans use the nut from the ojo de vaca (cow’s eye). It’s a flat nut, layered, and about one inch across. I often find the ojo de vaca plant as I walk in clearings next to jungle growth. I pop open the soft shell and see the cow eye staring back at me.
Pashaca, Microlobium acaciifolium
Craftsman often use the brown pashaca pod in hanging craftwork. The large silver dollar-size disks show up on bead curtains and other decorations that need something flat to twirl in the breeze. Pashaca is another Fabaceae that departs from the usual long seed pod of the family. While floating in my canoe under a tree canopy I often see pashaca—the tiny compound leaves announce the Fabaceae family while the disks tell me it could only be pashaca.
Pashaco, Parkia igneiflora
To add distinction to a necklace, craftsmen will use an animal tooth, but when selling to squeamish northerners they substitute the oblong seed called pashaco. Pashaco is another plant from the Fabaceae family with its distinctive small compound leaves and long seed pods. The locust tree in the states is a Fabaceae. In the jungle, open the hanging pods and one will find a bean seed for food or decoration.
Pashaquilla, Leucaena leucocephala
Another Fabaceae, this one yields the pashaquilla seed. These seeds are dark brown, flat and about the size of an apple seed. Craftsmen thread the dried pashaquilla seeds flat against flat creating a striking almost wave-like texture in bracelets and necklaces. The pashaquilla tree is a handsome ornamental found on city streets, so the seeds are easy to find. The tree also finds use for nitrogen fixation in agricultural work. I once collected pods from a pashaquilla tree that unfortunately belonged to the local police precinct. I spent several minutes explaining the duty officer why I had a bag full of police property.
A larger than achira is the seed from the pona palm. The seed works well on necklaces, is black, about the size of an olive, and has a grooved texture on its surface. Like many trees of the jungle, the roots of the pona or walking palm extend out of the damp soil and join the trunk three feet or so above the ground. The wood is tough, but flexible. Craftsmen use it for making bows, blowguns, and the flooring of village houses. A visit to a village house with its flexible floor reminds one he is walking on pona.
Rosario, Coix lacryma-jobi
Of the craft plants, perhaps the most common is one which produces a hard gray seed about a quarter-inch in diameter. The Indians call it mullo huayo or rosario and it’s a kind of wheat. Rosario appears on almost all beadwork, its gray shade matches any color added later. Rosario also finds its way into mortar and pestles where cooks crush the seeds into baking flour. The rosario plant seems to live along rivers edge away from the deep jungle.
For sound effects, craftsmen use the shacapa nut. Craftsmen weave these nuts into ceremonial waist belts. First, though, the nuts are dried and notched along the edge to remove the contents and leave a hollow piece perfect for a castanet sound. During dances, the rattle of scores of shacapa nuts lend a haunting sound to the chants and rhythms.
Shiringa, Hevea brasiliansis
An attractive seed with black markings wandering over a dark gray surface, these nuts, about the size of an olive, add a nice touch to a necklace or bracelet.
Yarina, Phytelephas macrocarp
Artists carve the rock-hard nut from the ivory palm or yarina into a kind of jungle scrimshaw called tahua. Collectors find the nuts in large clusters about shoulder high on the palm. They machete off the clusters then free up the nuts. Back home they carve the yarina nuts into a variety of faces and animals. Quality stuff has the object emerging from the brown background skin. As it dries, the white carved material takes on a rich brown tone that highlights the piece. Good tahuas are worthy of a collection.
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