Naughty Nut: Coco de Mer

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Love nut. Sea coconut. Seychelles nut. Whatever you call it, the fruit of the Coco de Mer palm tree raises eyebrows wherever it can be seen!

Fruit of the Coco de Mer at Ye Olde Curiosity ShopThe largest seeds in the world grow high in the palm fronds of Lodoicea maldivica. They are simply whoppers, measuring up to 20 inches in diameter and tipping the scales at 19 pounds. (Think “Thanksgiving turkey” in vegetable form.) Each one takes its sweet time coming to maturity -- 6 to 10 years -- which sounds like an eternity until you account for the 2 to 4 decades it takes the tree to flower. And trees can soar to the height of a 10 story building, so you probably want to find somewhere else to stand when that coconut decides to come down. The species flaunts a fascinating natural history, and bristles with impressive dimensions, indeed.

But (no pun intended) one look at the shape of the seed explains why travelers have gawked, mesmerized, since ancient times. One of the first botanical names given the species, Lodoicea callipyge, means “beautiful buttocks.”

The distinctive, human-seeming contours and mysterious origin gave rise to a mountain of myths. Because the nuts were usually found floating at sea, early legends told of a tree that grew at the bottom of the ocean (“Coco de Mer” means “Coconut of the Sea”). The fruits were thought to be gifts from the Sea God to men, and were desired for their ability to bestow good fortune. They were sold for many times their weight in gold during Roman times. European nobles of the sixteenth century, eager to show off their trendy “cabinets of wonder,” delighted in displaying highly polished, jewel-studded shells of the nuts as natural curiosities. And both Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions valued the shell for its supposed medicinal properties.

Once the island source of the coconut was discovered in the Indian Ocean, the Coco de Mer’s glacially slow reproductive process could not keep pace with humankind’s fevered harvesting. The usual results unfolded. There are fewer than 9,000 mature trees growing in an area the size of Orcas Island, and the plants are now rated as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Efforts are being made to preserve this rare, exotic plant.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

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