Stories - Issue #2
Horticulturalist Paul Gazerwitz is enchanted by the curiouslife and history of the sea coconut.
For my 30th birthday, as a special treat, my partner at the time announced that he was going to take me to the Seychelles. I didn’t know anything about the place but it suited me to be somewhere that didn’t involved any parties or fuss. I quite fancied being on the beach and letting the day slip away unceremoniously.
The Seychelles is a group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean and was virtually unknown to the wider world until the 18th century. Some of the earlier western visitors were taken aback by the islands’ beauty and verdant vegetation and claimed that they must be the remnants of the Garden of Eden. I also felt that I had arrived in paradise.
In the first few days of acclimatising to island life, I came across trinkets in the local shops that seemed to depict a woman’s buttocks. On closer examination it looked more like a seed, and I thought to myself, why would the locals celebrate a seed? Being a geeky horticulturalist, I needed to know more.
It turned out that these effigies were a scaled down version of the world’s largest seed, belonging to Lodoicea maldivica, the coco de mer (sea coconut) palm tree. The tree is endemic to the Seychelles and I immediately booked an excursion to one of the only two places where it grows naturally, the Vallée de Mai on the island of Praslin.
Paul standing in front of a young coco de mer tree.
We paid our entrance fee and proceeded into the jungle. Towering palm trees soon engulfed us and the shade that they cast made it seem as if it were night.There were no other plants growing among the coco de mer, we were in the valley of the giants. There was a small enclosure with a display showing a selection of the seeds of these super-sized palms. One showed the seed in the husk, one had the husk removed, and one was a much older, dry seed. They averaged about 50cm in diameter and weighed about 20kg. The trees themselves are huge, growing on average to a height of around 34m. The tallest on record, measured on the ground after felling, was 56.7m high. We also learned that the fruit requires six to seven years to mature and a further two years to germinate — they are obviously in no rush to propagate.
Before the Seychelles were discovered, the nuts of the coco de mer would float all the way to the Maldives and were often found by fishermen in the local waters, hence the name ‘sea coconut’. As nobody knew the plant that the nut had come from, it was assumed that there were underwater trees in a forest at the bottom of the sea. Due to their size and suggestive shape they became collectable. They were lacquered and encrusted with gold and jewels like Fabergé eggs and sold for vast sums of money.
The coco de mer seed will only float when the seeds are no longer viable. This one washed up on a beach in Zanzibar.
Most plants possess both male and female parts to their flowers and are self-fertile. The coco de mer is different: the plant is either male or female. As one might expect from a plant that produces such a large seed, the male flower is impressive: a long phallus-shaped catkin that is over a metre long. Because of their unusual, erotic shapes, some people believed that the trees made passionate love on stormy nights, male trees uprooting themselves and approaching female trees for a passionate embrace. Apparently the lovemaking trees are rather shy, and legend has it that whoever sees the trees mating will die or go blind.
The legend has been sustained by the fact that no one seems to be entirely sure how the trees pollinate themselves. It is also unsurprising to discover that the fruit of the tree is marketed as a potent aphrodisiac.
It is generally in a plant’s interest to disperse its seed as far from itself as possible. This way the parent plants and their offspring are not competing for space and nutrients. Their offspring can also colonise other ecosystems and habitats, so if the parent’s habitat is destroyed by fire or other occurrences, the species will still be able to flourish in another location.
Paul’s coco de mer propping a door open.
Coco de mer fruits on a young tree.
Being atypical, the coco de mer did not evolve a clever way to disperse its heavy seeds, which never fall far from the tree. Although the nut of the coco de mer can float, which should allow it to send its progeny around the world like the coconut, the coco de mer nut only floats when the seeds are no longer viable, which is why there are no other plants like it elsewhere in the world.
In order for the seedlings of the tree to flourish in the shade of the parent plant, the coco de mer has evolved to be a good parent in other, clever ways. It was recently discovered that the tree’s fronds are designed to funnel water and nutrients to the ground beneath it, which in turn creates a fertile breeding ground on the forest floor for the young plants.
The young plants have adapted leaves and growth patterns that help them flourish within a low light level environment. Once the plants mature and reach the canopy of the forest, the leaves change and then grow in the same manner as the parent plant.
One of the guides in the forest told me that I could bring one of the seeds home if I wanted to, but I would need a special export licence, which they could provide. Of course I wanted to. I somehow managed to make room for a giant seed in my luggage and it now takes pride of place in my house. When I see it I am instantly transported back to the jungle, standing in the valley of the giants, in complete awe of the extreme diversity of the plant kingdom.
The Republic of Seychelles is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean, consisting of 155 official islands. Only two of these, Praslin and Curieuse, have the coco de mer tree.
Coco De Mer