The west Amazonian piassaba fiber is extracted from the palm Aphandra natalia, that grows in tropical lowland rainforest in Ecuador and Peru close to the foothills of the Andes.
This palm has been known and exploited for centuries by indigenous communities for a multitude of purposes. Its leaves are used for thatch and for darts for blowguns, its male flowers are used for feeding domestic animals, the pulp of its fruits is used for attracting game animals, its seeds are used for making figurines etc., and most importantly the fiber from its leaf sheaths is extracted and used to make various brooms and brushes. This fiber is almost identical to the "piassaba" fiber extracted from species of Attalea and Leopoldinia elsewhere in the Amazon.
Aphandra natalia
These piassaba fibers from the northern and eastern Amazon have been known and amply documented in the literature since they were discovered by western science in the 19th century. It was therefore surprising when in 1985 the west Amazonian piassaba palm was discovered to belong to the group of ivory palms (subfamily Phytelephantoideae) that is distributed in the western parts of the South American continent (Balslev & Henderson, 1987).
Subsequently several aspects of the biology and uses of this palm were studied (Borgtoft Pedersen 1992,1996; Borgtoft Pedersen & Balslev 1990, 1992, 1993; Borgtoft Petersen & Skov 2001).
Aphandra natalia brooms in a shop
As it turned out, all brooms made from natural plant fiber throughout Ecuador were made with Aphandra natalia fiber, and many indigenous communities in Amazonian Ecuador had and have important economic incomes originating from this fiber palm but it was believed until very recently that it was a local phenomenon restricted to Ecuador.