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Carnauba Palms and Candelilla Shrubs: Plants and Their Wax

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A Useful Palm Tree and Shrub

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 and appreciated in gardens, however.

Wax is produced on the surface of leaves and non-woody 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.

The Waxy Cuticle of Plants

The cuticle is a protective layer on the top and bottom of a leaf and on the surface of non-woody stems. It's waxy and water-repellent. It’s produced by the cells in the epidermis, which is the outer cell layer of leaves and non-woody 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 or stomate (the singular terms for the opening). 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 that can close the pore when necessary.

Carnauba Palm Facts

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 known as an inflorescence. The oval fruits of the plant 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 from the tree, they're dried in the sun. The wax is then 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 material is obtained as flakes or a powder and is then purified in some way. It's often boiled in water. The water is filtered and the solid that's obtained is pressed. Some companies use solvent extraction to remove the wax from the liquid.

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), while 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 musical instruments. It's also used to make the shiny coating of candies, 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.

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 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—including Rhodnius nasutus, which infests carnauba palms—can transmit Chagas disease. The bugs breed in the palm trees. The disease that they cause is also known as American trypanosomiasis.

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 is named after Carlos Chagas (1879–1934), a Brazilian doctor. He discovered the illness in 1909. It exists in an acute or short-lived phase and a chronic or 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. Unfortunately, in some people the parasite becomes active again and life-threatening symptoms may appear.

Facts About 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.

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, it’s 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 gramophone 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

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.


Questions & Answers

Question: What does candelilla wax look like?

Answer: Candelilla wax is yellow-brown or tan in colour. It’s often sold in the form of beads or flakes.

© 2018 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 06, 2018:

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

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on April 06, 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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 25, 2018:

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 from Chicago, IL on March 25, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2018:

Thank you very much for the kind comment, Dianna.

Dianna Mendez on March 19, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2018:

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 from England on March 09, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2018:

Thank you very much for the comment, Nithya.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on March 09, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 08, 2018:

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

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on March 08, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 06, 2018:

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.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 06, 2018:

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?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

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

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 05, 2018:

Very educational and thorough, as always.

Interesting plants with cool properties.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

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.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on March 05, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

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 from london on March 05, 2018:

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

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 05, 2018:

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!

DDE on March 05, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 05, 2018:

Thank you, Nikki. I always appreciate your visits.

Nikki Khan from London on March 05, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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.

Mary Wickison from USA on March 04, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 04, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 04, 2018:

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

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 04, 2018:

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

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on March 04, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 03, 2018:

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

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 03, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 03, 2018:

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

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on March 03, 2018:

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.