Seychelles Stories and Tips

Praslin's marvelous Coco de Mer

The Vallee de Mai Photo, Seychelles, Africa

The Seychelles have long been known for two unique factors: the nation consists primarily of the only mid-ocean islands made of granite, and it is only there where the world's largest and heaviest nut grows naturally. Let's take a look at that wondrous nut, the fruit of the exceptionally rare Coco de Mer tree.

The palm that bears the Coco de Mer (coconut of the sea) was first found in, and only in, the Seychelles, specifically, only on the island of Praslin. No one knows precisely when that was, but available records do show that, for example, a 13th-century Hapsburg king, Rudolf II, paid 4,000 gold florins for one of the nuts. At the same time, Middle Eastern potentates were passing laws prohibiting ownership by any of their subjects, since they wanted they mystical fruit all for themselves.

The mystery surrounding the Coco de Mer comes from several of its curious characteristics. First, the nut never propagated widely because, unlike the coconut, which floats away to sprout on distant beaches, the Coco de Mer's fruit is heavier than water when it falls to the ground, so it sinks rather than floats. Some time later, when the seed is no longer fertile, a gas forms inside the shell, causing the nut to rise to the surface of the water. It was those "upward falling" nuts that led early Arab seamen to believe the trees to be growing on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, thus the name "Coconut of the Sea." It was also those floating nuts that were gathered and sold, for a king's ransom, in Europe and Arabia.

As though the underwater tree wasn't enough of as legend in and of itself, once the plants were discovered (on Praslin), it was learned that there were male and female trees with extraordinary characteristics. The fruit itself grows only on female trees, and when stripped of its outer husk, has a remarkable resemblance to the naked human female pelvis. The male of the species develops phallic catkins, which may grow to 2 feet in length and 2 inches in diameter. For several generations after the arrival of the first permanent settlers in the islands (the 18th century), the Seychellois believed that the catkins became erect after sunset, and that then, in the dark of night, the trees reproduced much like mammals. To witness such an event would result in immediate blindness.

The unusual trees were first introduced to the world when British General Charles Gordon (the Martyr of Khartum) visited Seychelles in 1881. He'd been sent from Sudan to study and report on the feasibility of fortifying Mahe against an attack by the French. A highly educated man, Gordon subscribed to a theory that Seychelles were once part of a landmass joining everything between Africa and India. In a highly read and widely circulated dispatch to England, Gordon declared that the site of Biblical Eden had been near Seychelles. When he later visited Praslin and found both breadfruit and the Coco de Mer (which he believed to be the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil respectively), he was sure that the Garden of Eden had been found.

Other than as a botanical curiosity and producer of expensive souvenirs, the Coco de Mer has little use to man. The gelatinous meat of the nut (which some have compared to congealed semen) is tasteless and apparently of little or no nutritional value. But the nut is of such significance to Seychelles that it has been featured in state crests, on flags, and as part of the nation's currency. Over the past century, a handful of the trees have been exported, usually as gifts, to botanical gardens around the world: there is one, for example, growing happily in Sarasota, Florida, although it has yet to bear a nut.

Tightly controlled licenses are required to sell and/or export the nuts, but, if you want, you'll be able to buy and bring one home with you, a souvenir of your time in Eden.

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