Saturday, April 22, 2017

Nice Nuts!

Coco de mer: The Forbidden Fruit

Amusing Planet  
In the islands of Praslin and Curieuse, in the Seychelles, grows one of the most exclusive palm trees in the world. The coco de mer (Lodoicea maldivica) has tall slender trunks that rise more than 30 meters above the ground. At its crown is a mass of fronds, with leaf blades fanning out nearly five meters across. On mature individuals, the leaves are often fringed at the edges. Their withered ends hang from the palm below the vibrant, healthy green crown.

Possibly the most renowned feature of coco de mer are its enormous seeds—the largest and heaviest seeds in the plant world. But it is the shape and not the size of the seeds, that makes coco de mer famous; the seeds bear an uncanny resemblance to a woman’s butt. Indeed, one of coco de mer’s archaic botanical name was Lodoicea callipyge, where callipyge in Greek means “beautiful buttocks”.

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Photo credit: www.vcocodemer.sc

The coco de mer has been the stuff of mystery and legend, perhaps more than any other tree in the world. Centuries ago, before Seychelles were discovered and settled, the nuts from coco de mer used to wash up on distant shores, such as the Maldives, where the tree was unknown. There it was gathered from the beaches and traded with other countries. Because of its unusual shape and size, the nut was viewed as a fascinating object with powerful aphrodisiac qualities. And because it came from the Maldives, the nut was called Maldive coconut. This is still reflected in its current scientific name, Lodoicea maldivica

When the fruit of a coco de mer falls into the sea, it cannot float because of its immense weight and density. Instead it sinks to the bottom. After spending a considerable period of time on the sea bed, the husk weakens and drops off. The internal parts of the nut decay, and the gases that form inside the nut makes it buoyant causing the bare nut to rise up to the surface. Many sailors had seen the nut rising up from the sea bed, and thought they grew on underwater trees, in a forest at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. This belief gave the tree its name, “coco de mer”, which is French for "coconut of the sea". 

In those days, the coco de mer nuts held great value and all nuts found on the ocean or on the beaches became the immediate property of the King, who sold them at very high price or became precious regal gifts. Middle Eastern princes and even the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, offered a fortune for these rare treasures. 

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The male inflorescence. Photo credit: ViloWiki/Wikimedia

The source of the nut was eventually traced back to the Seychelles, sometime in the middle of the 18th century, where the explorers found another surprise in waiting. Unlike the coconut palm, the coco de mer palm has separate male and female trees. The butt-shaped nut came from the female tree while the male flowers develop into very suggestive phallic-looking catkins. The resemblance to human reproductive organs gave rise to a new folklore that on dark storm nights, when no one is looking, the trees uproot themselves and lock in passionate carnal embrace. The legend goes that whoever sees the trees making love either die or go blind. Even today the pollination process of coco de mer is not fully understood, and this just adds to the allure of the palm.

When Major General Charles George Gordon of the British Army landed on Vallée de Mai on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles in 1881, he was convinced he had found the biblical Garden of Eden. An ardent Christian cosmologist, Gordon saw the shape of coco de mer’s fruit and was positive that it was the forbidden fruit that Eve offered Adam.

The amazing coco de mer today holds five botanical records —(1) it produces the largest wild fruit, weighing up to 42 kg; (2) its seeds weighing up to 17.6 kg are the world's heaviest; (3) it produces the longest known cotyledon, up to four meters; (4) the female flowers are the largest of any palm, and (5) it is the most efficient plant known at recovering nutrients from moribund leaves.

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Photo credit: Wouter Hagens/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: gardenofeaden.blogspot.in

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Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Gerald Arzt/Flickr

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Photo credit: chaletsdanseforbans.blogspot.in

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Photo credit: Seychelles Tourism Board

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Photo credit: Botanical Museum Berlin

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Photo credit: Botanical Museum Berlin

Sources: Wikipedia / Arkive / BBC

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