The New York Times, January 28, 1906, p. SM7:|
Most Famous of All Palms, the Coco de Mer
Splendid Specimen of This Plant,
Which Bears the Biggest Nut in the World,
Grown from a Seedling in Our Botanical Garden—
A Subject of Fantastic Legend.
In the magnificent palm palace of the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Park, a specimen of the most famous of all palms, and one of the rarest in cultivation, has just been placed for public admiration after three years in the propagating house, where it arrived as a seedling. This is the double cocoanut, the coco de mer, the coco de Salomon, the coco des Maldives of the French, the coco Maldivicus of Rumphius, the nux medica of Clusius, the Sechellarium of Labillardière, technically known to botanists nowadays as Lodoicea maldivica.
This palm has been the subject of more mystery and more fantastic legends than perhaps any other tree that grows. It is a native of the Seychelles Islands, on the northeast coast of Madagascar, the paradise where the great feather variety and others of the most beautiful palms had their origin, and even here it is found on only three isles of the group, Praslin, Curieuse, and Round Islands, which are within half a mile of each other [the coco de mer has since become extinct on Round Island].
It attains a height of 80 or 90 feet, and is surrounded by a beautiful crown of winged and palmated leaves. The diameter of the trunk varies from 12 to 15 inches, and the whole is so flexible that it sways in a strong breeze. The leaves attain a length of 20 feet, and even 30 feet, with a breadth of 10 or 12 feet, and open like a fan. The fruit is the largest which any tree produces. It frequently is 18 inches in length, with a circumference of 3 feet, and sometimes weighs 40 or 50 pounds. A remarkable circumstance connected with the tree is the length of time necessary to mature its fruit and the long duration of the bloom. It bears only one spadix in each year, and yet has often as many as a dozen in bloom at once. It has flowers and fruit of all ages at one time.
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Until the year 1743, when they were seen on the trees in the only spot where they grow, the nuts were known solely from having been found floating in the Indian Ocean off the Maldive Islands. They were found in no other place in the world. The reason was that the trees grew on the shores of the Seychelles, and large quantities of the great fruit, falling into the water, were borne to the Maldives by currents, the direction of which in those parts is east-northeast.
The nuts were always found minus the husk and mostly with the internal part decayed. They were called "Calappa Laut" by the Dutch, and under that appelation Rumphius has given a historical account of them. The double cocoanut, he says, is not a terrestrial production, which may have fallen by accident into the sea and there became petrified, but a fruit probably growing itself in the sea, whose fruit hitherto has been concealed from the eye of man.
The Malay and Chinese sailors used to affirm that it was borne upon a tree deep under water, which was similar to a cocoanut tree, and was visible in placid bays upon the coast of Sumatra, &c., but that if they sought to dive after it the tree instantly disappeared.
The negro priests declared it grew near the island of Java, where its leaves and branches rose above the water, and formed the habitation of a monstrous bird or griffin. This griffin was accustomed to sally forth nightly and tear to pieces with its beak such insignificant game as elephants, rhinocerouses, and tigers, and carry off the flesh to its nest to feed on at leisure. Moreover, ships were attracted by the waves which surrounded the tree and were unable to sail out of the fatal zone, so that the hapless sailors fell and easy prey to the voracious bird. Needless to say that the inhabitants of the Indian Archipelago in their travels about the ocean were careful to give the spot the widest possible berth.
It is no matter for wonder, under the circumstances, that the nut should have been highly prized. In the Maldivian Islands it was death to any man to possess it. All nuts that were found became the immediate property of the King, who sold them at a very high price offered them as the most precious regal gifts. Their value was estimated at from 60 to 120 crowns; but those which measured as much in breadth as in length were the most esteemed, and those which attained a foot in diameter fetched as high as 150 crowns. In fact, some Kings were reputed to have given a loaded ship for a single nut.
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Dr. Berthold Seemann [1825-1871, German botanist], in his history of palms [Popular History of the Palms and Their Allies, 1856], tells us that the Chinese as well as the natives of the archipelago considered the nuts of the coco de mer an antidote to all poisons. The principal virtue resided in the albumen which lines the nut, and which is so hard as to be preserved for a length of time after the embryo has been destroyed. This substance was ground to powder, placed in vessels of porphyry with powdered black and white or red coral, ebony, and stags' horns, the whole was mixed with water, and thus formed the drink which was to counteract the poisons. The double cocoanut was also thought servicable in all inflammations of the body, as a preservative against colic, apoplexy, epilepsy, paralysis, &c.
Of the shell, which possessed fewer medicinal properties, the great men made precious vessels, the lid of which was formed by cutting off the top transversly. In these vessels, which were carved and ornamented with rare gems, they put their tobacco, betel, lime, and whatever else they masticated, believing that then these items could never be contaminated with anything noxious. Water kept in them was supposed to preserve from every complaint those who drank of it.
Nowadays the crown of the trunk—that is, the heart of the leaves—is eaten like that of the American cabbage palm, and often preserved in vinegar; but it is less delicate and slightly bitter. The trunk itself, after being split and cleared of its soft and fibrous internal parts, serves to make water troughs as well as palisades for surrounding houses and gardens.
The foliage is employed to thatch the roofs of houses and sheds, and even for walls. With a hundred leaves a commodious dwelling may be constructed, including the partitions of the apartments, the doors and windows.
The down attached to the young leaves serves for filling mattresses and pillows. The ribs of the leaves and fibres of the petiole are used for making baskets and brooms, while the young foliage furnishes an excellent material for hats.
Of the nut, vessels of different forms and for various uses are made. When preserved whole and perforated in one or two places the shells serve to carry water. Some of them hold from six to eight pints, and generally are carried suspended to sticks, one on each end. If divided in two between the lobes, each portion serves, according to its size and shape, for plates or dishes or drinking cups.
In European countries the shell has been utilized for making shaving dishes and similar articles. It is black and polishes beautifully, and generally is carved and set in silver.
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For many years attempts to introduce the coco de mer in the conservatories of European botanical gardens failed miserably. Such was the eagerness to make experiments in rearing it that germinating nuts were disposed of at public sale in London for £10 apiece. There are some fine examples now both at Kew and Hanover.
The New York specimen was germinated by William Falconer at the Schenley Park conservatories at Pittsburgh, and in the propogating house at the Bronx has been the object of the indefatigable solicitude of Mr. Nash, the head gardener. At the present time it is about four feet in height, has a couple of leaves, and just enough of a nut to show its character.
The original home of the coco de mer, the Seychelles, is a veritable Garden of Eden, as may be judged by the following enthusiastic description given by R. W. Plant, the African explorer:
"In the Seychelles I more nearly realized my preconceived ideas about tropical vegetation than at any other place—the beach fringed with common cocoanuts; the ravines and water courses overhung with bananas, bamboos, and three or four indigenous palms; the open ground full of pineapples—miles of them, run wild; the tops of the mountains covered with forests of ebony and rosewood, interspersed with tree ferns of some twenty or thirty feet high, and then these glorious Lodoiceae, with their leaves of fifteen or twenty feet span and trunks reaching to the sky, to say nothing of groves of cinnamon and cloves and breadfruit, all new to me in this their natural wildness and beauty."
The Seychelles were discovered by the Portuguese in 1505, occupied by the French in 1743, seized by the British in 1794, and formally ceded to them by France in 1814. The capital, Victoria, is situated on Mahé Island, and is used as a naval coaling station.