Carnauba Palms and Candelilla: The Plants and Their Wax

Updated on March 3, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

Carnauba palms
Carnauba palms | Source

Carnauba palms and candelilla shrubs are interesting plants that produce a useful wax. Carnauba palms are native to Brazil. They grow in the wild, but the area around the trees is often managed to some extent. Candelilla is a shrub native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The wax is obtained from wild plants. The shrub is sometimes grown in gardens.

Wax is produced on the surface of leaves and nonwoody stems and on the surface of certain fruits. It acts as a waterproofing agent that protects plants from dehydration. Some plant waxes have properties that are beneficial for humans. Carnauba and candelilla wax are examples of these helpful materials.

Location of the cuticle of a leaf
Location of the cuticle of a leaf | Source

The Waxy Cuticle of Plants

The cuticle is a protective layer on the top and bottom of a leaf and on the surface of nonwoody stems. It's waxy and water-repellent. The cuticle is produced by the cells in the epidermis, which is the outer cell layer of leaves and nonwoody stems.

The cuticle has a complex chemical structure that hasn't been fully deciphered. Its base consists of a substance called cutin. On top of the cutin and interwoven with it are fatty acids, alcohols, hydrocarbons, and other organic (carbon-containing) molecules, which form the wax. The layer overlying the cutin is known as the "cuticle proper" and is the part that is removed during wax collection from a plant.

Small openings called stomata (or stomates) are located in the epidermis. The cuticle is absent over the surface of a stoma. Carbon dioxide, oxygen, and other gases move into and out of the leaf through the stomata, which are mostly located on the underside of the leaf. Here the environment is generally shady and the rate of water evaporation from the leaf is lower than it would be on the upper surface. A stoma is bordered by guard cells which can close the opening when necessary.

Carnauba palm leaves
Carnauba palm leaves | Source

The Carnauba Palm

The carnauba palm is native to the northeastern part of Brazil. It's also known as the carnauba wax palm and the Brazilian wax palm. It has the scientific name Copernicia prunifera. It's sometimes referred to as Copernicia cerifera, however. It belongs to the family Arecaceae, which contains other palms.

The tree grows on the savanna or in open forest. It has the ability to withstand dry periods as well as occasional flooding. It can also withstand moderate salinity. The wax is found on its leaves and leaf stalks (petioles) and is harvested from the upper surface of the leaves.

The tree has a single trunk and generally reaches a height of up to 15 metres (49 feet). Some trees are taller. The attractive leaves are large, deeply divided, and shaped like a fan. They are green, blue-green, or light grey in colour. They are borne at the end of a long petiole, which bears spines. The plant needs to be handled carefully in order to prevent injuries from the spines. The lower two-thirds of the trunk bears leaf bases remaining after the loss of older leaves. These remnants are arranged in a spiral pattern around the trunk.

The flowers of the carnauba palm are small and yellow. They are grouped in a long and sometimes branched collection of flowers known as an inflorescence. The oval fruits are yellow-green to dark brown in colour, depending on their maturity.

Harvesting Carnauba Wax

The first step in harvesting carnauba wax is to strip leaves from the tree. If this is done carefully, it doesn't damage the plant, which grows new leaves. The best wax comes from young, unopened leaves. According to one Brazilian company involved in the wax extraction, harvesters use a long stick with a knife at the end to reach the leaves.

Once the leaves have been removed, they are dried in the sun. The wax is then mechanically removed from the surface of the leaves. A traditional method that is still used is to beat the leaves in order to separate the wax. The wax is obtained as flakes or a powder. The wax is then purified. It's often boiled in water, filtered, and then pressed. Some companies use solvent extraction to remove the wax from the liquid.

Carnauba wax
Carnauba wax | Source

Although there is an overlap in the uses of carnauba and candelilla wax, the plants belong to different groups of flowering plants. Palm trees are monocots and candelilla is a dicot. Monocot embryos have a single cotyledon (seed leaf) and dicot embryos have two. There are additional differences between the two groups.

Uses of the Wax and the Tree

Carnauba wax is hard and has a high melting point. It's found in polish for cars, floors, furniture, and instruments. It's also used to make the shiny coating of candies, such as smarties, the coating of some medicinal tablets, the wax that coats dental floss, and candles. In addition, it's used to coat some specialized paper and cardboard products, including paper plates.

Carnauba wax is sometimes listed as E 903 on ingredient lists. The "E" stands for Europe. The designation is assigned by the European Food Safety Authority. E designations may be found in countries outside Europe, however, especially on imported food.

Carnauba wax is considered safe to eat in the amounts normally added to food. Researchers haven't investigated the effects of eating a large amount of the wax, however.

The carnauba palm is sometimes known as the "tree of life" because of its many uses. The wax is the most useful product of the plant today. The wood of carnauba palms is used to construct items such as bridges and the beams of roofs. The leaves are used to create thatch for roofs. They are also woven into items such as baskets, bags, hats, and mats. The fruits are edible but don't contain much pulp. They are used as animal feed. Each fruit contains one seed. The seeds are sometimes used as a coffee substitute.

Rhodnius prolixus
Rhodnius prolixus | Source

Rhodnius prolixus is found on palm trees and is a common transmitter of the parasite that causes Chagas disease. Rhodnius nasutus is very similar in structure to the Rhodnius prolixus shown in the photo above. It's found on many carnauba palms and can also transmit the parasite.

Bugs in Palm Trees and Chagas Disease

Carnauba palms are often infested by bugs that can carry the parasite that causes Chagas disease. Some people use the word "bug" as an alternate name for insect, but according to biological classification bugs belong to a specific order of insects known as the Hemiptera.

The order Hemiptera contains a family known as the Reduviidae. This family contains a subfamily called the Triatominae. The members of the subfamily are referred to as either reduviid bugs or as triatomine bugs. Many triatomine bugs are blood suckers. Some of these bugs—including Rhodnius nasutus, which infests carnauba palms—can transmit Chagas disease. The bugs breed in the palm trees.

When a triatomine bug bites someone to obtain a meal of blood, they sometimes defecate at the same time. The feces may contain the parasite that causes Chagas disease, which is named Trypanosoma cruzi. If the parasite enters the victim's bloodstream through the wound created by the bite, it may make the person sick. The insects are often known as kissing bugs because they tend to bite people's faces while they are sleeping in order to obtain blood. The area around the bite may be swollen.

Chagas disease exists in an acute (short-lived) phase and a chronic (long-lasting) phase. During the acute phase, people may experience symptoms such as a headache, body aches, a fever, a rash, and fatigue. These symptoms eventually disappear, but the person may still have a dormant infection. In many people, there are no further symptoms from the infection. In some people, however, the parasite becomes active again and life-threatening symptoms may appear.

People who visit places where triatomine bugs that transmit Chagas disease are found should take precautions to avoid insect bites. These places include Mexico, Central America, South America, and the southern United States. People should visit a doctor if suspicious symptoms appear after a visit to the area.

A candelilla plant
A candelilla plant | Source

The Candelilla Plant

The candalilla plant has the interesting scientific name Euphorbia antisyphilitica. The species name was chosen because the plant was once thought to fight syphilis. The plant is also known as Euphorbia cerifera. It belongs to the spurge family, or the Euphorbiaceae.

From a distance, candelilla looks as though it consists entirely of thin, blue-green stems growing in an upright bunch. Branches in the stems are uncommon. The plant does produce leaves, but they are small and hard to see. The name of the plant means "little candle" and refers to the appearance of the stems. The mature stems generally range from around one foot to two feet in height but may occasionally be as tall as three feet.

The flowers of the plant are beautiful but small. They are white or pink with a red centre surrounding yellow or green reproductive structures. They grow all along the stems.

Candelilla flowers
Candelilla flowers | Source

Harvesting and Processing Candelilla Wax

Bundles of candelilla plants are collected by hand. If the root is left, the plant will likely regenerate. If the plant and the root are removed, regeneration isn't possible.

The collection and purification of wax from the plants is a multistep, arduous, and time-consuming process. The processed can be summarized as follows:

  • The candelilla plants are placed in large cauldrons containing water and sulphuric acid.
  • The liquid is heated and boiled. This causes the wax to separate from the plant and rise to the surface in a foam.
  • The foam is removed and placed in a different container. The liquid from the foam is removed, leaving the wax behind.
  • The wax is allowed to cool and solidify.
  • The solid wax is broken into multiple pieces, which are melted to allow debris to separate by sedimentation.
  • Melted wax is passed through Fuller's Earth or activated charcoal to purify it.
  • Additional refining steps may be performed before the wax is ready to sell.

Fuller's earth is a type of clay known for its ability to absorb materials. Activated charcoal is a form of carbon that does the same thing.

Few people in this country have ever heard of candelilla wax and only a handful have seen it being produced, yet nearly everyone has had personal contact with it.

— Texas Beyond History

Uses of Candelilla Wax and Plants

Candelilla wax is used to add a glaze to foods and is found in some brands of chewing gum. It may be listed as E 902 on an ingredient list. Like carnauba wax, candelilla wax is considered safe to eat in the usual quantities added to food. The wax is used in a variety of cosmetics, including lotions, creams, and lip balm. It's a good vegan substitute for beeswax.

Candelilla wax is hard after it has been refined. It's used for some of the same purposes as carnauba wax. It's added to polishes and waxes for floors and furniture and applied to leather. In addition, it's used to coat paper, cardboard, and phonograph records and is added to some lubricants and adhesives.

Candelilla is sometimes grown as a garden plant. Its flowers attract butterflies. The stems release a milky latex when cut, which may be irritating to the skin. The latex is toxic if ingested. Gloves should be warn when handling the plant.

Monarch butterfly on candelilla
Monarch butterfly on candelilla | Source

Some Concerns About the Wax Harvest

Though the wax obtained from the carnauba palm and the candelilla plant is useful, some concerns are associated with its collection. In each case, the collection process is labour intensive. In addition, the people collecting the wax sometimes work under unpleasant conditions.

Another concern is the status of the plants. If a carnauba palm is stripped of a large quantity of leaves before they have made carbohydrates by photosynthesis, the tree may be harmed. Collecting too many candelilla shrubs with their roots attached may harm the wild population. A sustainable industry that treats humans well is important with respect to the collection of both types of wax.

References

  • Fernández, V., Guzmán-Delgado, P., Graça, J., Santos, S., & Gil, L. (2016). Cuticle Structure in Relation to Chemical Composition: Re-assessing the Prevailing Model. Frontiers in Plant Science, 7, 427. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2016.00427
  • Facts about Copernicia prunifera from the Floridata Plant Encyclopedia
  • Carnauba wax information and extraction from the Gustav Heess Group
  • More information about the wax extraction from Carnaúba do Brasil
  • Safety of carnauba wax as a food additive (abstract) from EFSA (European Food Safety Authority)
  • Rhodnius nasutus on Carnauba palm trees from ARCA (a repository of Fiocruz, a public health research institution)
  • Facts about Chagas disease from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Information about candelilla plants from Arizona State University
  • Facts about Euphorbia antisyphilitica from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, University of Texas at Austin
  • Extraction of candelilla wax from the Candelilla Institute
  • From Desert Plants to Dollars from Texas Beyond History (A University of Texas at Austin website)
  • Safety of candelilla wax as a food additive (abstract) from EFSA

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for sharing the interesting information about the use of carnauba wax in histology, Chris. I appreciate your visit and comment.

      • cam8510 profile image

        Chris Mills 

        4 months ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Linda, I am a histology technician. We use paraffin/wax in which we embed small samples of human/animal tissue. The result is a "block" of paraffin/wax with the tissue inside. This is put on an instrument called a microtome. This instrument cuts sections of the paraffin/wax and tissue that are about 1-5 micrometers in thickness. The average is probably 4 micrometers. Carnauba wax is used as a hardening agent in this wax. Most of the wax is a byproduct of petroleum processing. This, to me, might be the most beneficial use of carnauba wax. You can do a search by using keywords, carnauba wax, histology, embedding.

        Excellent article. Actually, I thought all the paraffin we used in histology was petroleum based, but carnauba wax is used to harden the petroleum wax.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Natalie. The fact that plants have so many uses is very impressive. I hope that as many species as possible exist for a long time.

      • Natalie Frank profile image

        Natalie Frank 

        4 months ago from Chicago, IL

        It's amazing how many uses different plants have and all that they produce. I think what you point out at the end is particularly important as if we use plants irresponsibly we can kill them off when it just takes a bit of restraint to ensure their longevity. Thanks for the article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Dianna.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        5 months ago

        Such wonderful facts on palms and plants I did not know about. Always an interesting read and education when I stop in at your place!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Nell. Thanks for the visit. The health agencies say the wax is safe in normal food quantities. I don't think it would be very nice to eat a large quantity of it, though!

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        5 months ago from England

        How fascinating! I was going to ask how do we know the wax is safe? but as you said its not been eaten in large quantity. I never knew this, so its something else I learned! lol!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Nithya.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        5 months ago from Dubai

        Learned a lot about Carnauba Palms and Candelilla plant and their wax. Never knew about the existence of the Chagas‘ disease. Interesting and informative as always.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Larry. I hope the tea helps to relieve your neuralgia. It's wonderful that plants can help us in so many ways.

      • Larry Fish profile image

        Larry W Fish 

        5 months ago from Raleigh

        What an interesting read, Linda and great photos to go with the article. I am always amazed at what plant uses go into the products that we use. Many are hard to harvest which is sad. There are so many herbal products to that come from the leaves of different plants. I am presently drinking two cups of Chamomile herbal tea every day to help with my trigeminal neuralgia.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Dora. I wish harvesting was easier for the workers, too. The wax that is added to apples is generally food-grade, but I don't know what it is in the case that you describe. I haven't seen the video, but I'll look out for it.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 months ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks for another educational post. Just wishing that the workers did not have such a difficult task obtaining the wax. There is a video making the rounds, showing wax on apples. Could that Candelilla wax or some harmful chemical concoction as the video suggests?

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Larry. I agree—the plants do have cool properties!

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        5 months ago from Oklahoma

        Very educational and thorough, as always.

        Interesting plants with cool properties.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Peg. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information. Several species of palm trees are grown as ornamental plants where I live. It's interesting to see them in our climate, especially in winter.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        5 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        Another interesting glimpse into the wonders of nature and the products we get from plants. I've heard of Carnauba wax but I never knew where it came from or how it was made. I've seen those palm trees growing in South Florida. That insect photo is scary.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I love the joys of nature, too, Manatita. Not all aspects of nature are wonderful, but many are. They are fascinating to explore.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Heidi. I appreciate your comment, as always. I hope you have a great week as well!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Devika. I think there is a lot of beauty in nature. The two wax plants are part of the beauty, especially at certain stages of their life cycle.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        5 months ago from london

        Very colourful Caribbean-looking pictures. Nice to see that man making the Wax. O for the joys of nature.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        5 months ago from Chicago Area

        Always interesting stuff about things I never would have known about! I only remember that carnauba wax can be used for surf boards, thanks to the movie Point Break. Okay, way too much trivia. :)

        Thanks for sharing your seemingly limitless knowledge of the natural world! Have a great week!

      • profile image

        DDE 

        5 months ago

        I have not heard of these amazing plants. It is the beauty of nature and life to learn about the facts of Carnauba Palms and Candelilla. You shared another hub with educational tips.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Nikki. I always appreciate your visits.

      • nikkikhan10 profile image

        Nikki Khan 

        5 months ago from London

        Very interesting and informative hub Linda,,very useful information on wax palms,, didn't know before how we get this wax.

        Thanks for sharing dear.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for sharing your experience of life in Brazil, Mary. It would be very sad if the tree population was threatened by human activity. I hope that doesn't happen.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        5 months ago from Brazil

        Although I don't have these palms on our farm, there are many carnauba in our area. It's just as you say they will cut them and leave them to dry.

        Because there is so much building going on in our region, I worry that the palms will be cut down to make way for homes and industry.

        Although I haven't seen that particular insect, I will keep my eyes open as we have so many different types here.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I hope I never see one of those bugs, too! Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Peggy.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        5 months ago from Houston, Texas

        We first became aware of candelilla plants when we visited Big Bend National Park in Texas. Apparently a long time ago they were harvested there for their wax. I did not know of the Carnauba palm trees that also produce wax. Very informative article including the part about the Rhodnius prolixus and the disease it can cause. Hope to never see one of those!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mary. Lots of people call insects bugs. It's not a problem, except in biology! Thank you for the visit.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I have never heard of these two names but have seen these plants and just call them palms. I never thought of these as a source of wax. It is interesting. By the way, I do mix bugs and insects, too.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate the kind comment, Bill. I'm glad there's a big world to explore!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Bill. I think the nature and sources of plant wax are interesting. It's an interesting material.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 months ago from Olympia, WA

        There is a big world out there which I know nothing about. :) Thank goodness I have you to educate me, Linda!

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        5 months ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Linda. How interesting. I had never heard of candelilla or carnauba wax. Guess I never really considered where wax comes from. Now I know. Thank you for the education.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. I appreciate your visit. It can be surprising to see how many products contain carnauba or candelilla wax!

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 months ago from USA

        Fascinating and so many uses. I never imagined that these products contained this wax, certainly not Smarties or chewing gum.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Jackie. It is wonderful that plants can help us in so many ways. They are interesting organisms. Thanks for the visit.

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        5 months ago from The Beautiful South

        So interesting. Does seem harvesting is not a simple job for this day and time. Which of course probably makes it and ingredients containing this somewhat expensive?

        Well I will never wax my car again without thinking of this Linda. Another wonder in our wonderful world!

        Thank you for pointing it out.

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