Seychelles is home to some of the most dynamic species which are endemic to it. Likewise, it boasts of the most controversial nut of all times- the Coco de Mer. A French word, the Coco de Mer translates into 'coconut of the sea'. This nut has garnered attention due to its naughty, peculiar shape resembling that of a female bottom. It grows on tall trees and is exclusive to a tiny area in Seychelles. Various legends and myths have been associated with it, and this naughty nut has been the centre of attraction in royal courts.
The nut has aroused the curiosity of even the scientists and biologists all over the world, for science has not unraveled many of its mysterious features. The Coco de Mer nut even compelled the poet Luis de Camoes to pen down a few lines on it:
'O'er lone Maldivia's islets grows the plant, beneath profoundest seas, of sov'reign might, whose pome of ev'ry Theriack is confest, by cunning leech of antidotes the best.'
These beautiful lines are enough to speak for the nut's enigma and popularity. The real Coco de Mer trees were not discovered until 1743 in Seychelles. General Gordon even named it as the 'forbidden fruit'. Other popular names include sea coconut, love nut, double coconut, and coco fesse.
Decoding Coco de Mer
Biological name- Lodoicea maldivica
The Coco de Mer is the largest and the heaviest seed in the world, weighing up to 25 kilogrammes with a diameter of 40 to 50 centimetres. It is a monotypic genus in the palm family and is endemic to Seychelles. This spectacular species has the distinction of holding five botanical records- the largest fruit, the heaviest seed, the longest cotyledon, the largest female flower of any palm and the most efficient plant in drawing up nutrients.
The trees and leaves
The Coco de Mer grows on tall trees that have an average height of 25-34 metres. The stem is erect and spineless with rings of leaf scars. There is a large bulbous structure at the base of the trunk, which eventually narrows down towards the bottom. A wide variety of animals live around these trees, suggesting that their evolution would have taken many years.
The leaves are fan-shaped and can be as long as 10 metres and as wide as 4.5 metres. The petiole is about 4 metres in length, and the leaves are plicate at the base. The funnel formed by the leaves traps the pollen which is carried to the base during rainfall, thereby ensuring that the tree has enough nutrients.
Flowers and inflorescence
The female flowers of Coco de Mer are the largest of any palm -dioecious, with separate male and female plants. Each flower has a small bracteole, three sepals forming a cylindrical tube, and a three-lobed corolla. The male flowers are arrayed in a catkin-like inflorescence which is pollinated by lizards, rain and wind. The trees begin to produce flowers only after 11 years.
The fruit of Coco de Mer is the largest in the world with a diameter of 40-50 centimetres and a weight of 15-30 kilogrammes. It is bilobed and flattened and usually contains one seed. Sometimes, it can also hold two to four seeds. The nut of Coco de Mer is the largest in the plant kingdom. It takes six to seven years to mature and another two to three years to germinate. Earlier, it was believed that the sea dispersed the seed. However, later studies showed that the Coco de Mer nuts are too heavy to float, it is the hollow germinated ones who are carried away by the sea currents.
Legends of Coco de Mer
The Coco de Mer nut has an erotic shape and looks like a woman's buttock on one side and a woman's belly and thighs on the other. This unique shape of the nut has served as fertile soil for some juicy stories since times immemorial, ultimately transforming into legends. Some of these are still believed. Nevertheless, these legends are quite exciting and lend an unusual dimension to the Coco de Mer.
The Malay Legend
The Coco de Mer nut was considered to possess magical and mystical properties. The origin of the nut and its tree was unknown, thereby adding to the mysterious nature of the nut. The Malay legend was based on an unknown property of the nut. The Coco de Mer, due to its hefty size, is unable to float on water, thus sinking to the bottom of the sea. Over time, due to biological processes, the outer husk of the nut withers and the inner germinating parts of the plant decay and rot. The gases released as a consequence push the bare seed to the top of the ocean, which is then washed up to distant shores by ocean currents.
The seamen of Malay, therefore according to their intellect, saw these nuts 'falling upwards' from the ocean bed. This led them to believe that there was a forest at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. They even believed that these trees were the abode of the giant bird Garuda, which hunted down the elephants and tigers. The African priests, on the other hand, had another interesting belief. They said that the Coco de Mer trees sometimes rose above the ocean waters and the turbulent waves created as a result obstructed the path of any ship sailing in the vicinity. The Garuda then mauled the people sailing in these ships.
The hollow germinated nuts of Coco de Mer were usually carried away by the strong ocean currents to the shores of Maldives, where they were completely unknown. These nuts reaching the shores no longer remained fertile, and therefore no trees emerged from them. The atypical shape of the nut perplexed the inhabitants of this island and made additions to its legend and lore. Any of the Coco de Mer nuts found on Maldives' shore had to be offered to the royal court - keeping it to oneself meant a death penalty. The Dutch Admiral Wolfert Hermansson was gifted with the Coco de Mer nut in 1602 by the Sultan of Bantam in return for his services. The upper part of the nut, however, was chopped off for it would have been an insult to the admiral's modesty. The nut was even believed to possess medicinal properties.
Legend in Seychelles
The discovery of Coco de Mer in Seychelles in 1743 led to another legend about the Coco de Mer. Since the fruits of this plant grow only on female trees, it was widely believed that the male trees walked up to the female ones to make love to them on nights. The erotic shape of the nut is largely attributed to this clandestine lovemaking. However, legend has it that those who saw the trees making love to each other either died or went blind. This belief of trees making love to each other is strengthened by the fact that the pollination of the Coco de Mer has still not been fully identified by the scientists and biologists.
The Forbidden Fruit Legend
Seychelles was visited by General Charles George Gordon in 1881. He hailed the Vallee De Mai Reserve in Praslin (the home of Coco de Mer trees) as the original Garden of Eden, as mentioned in the Bible. The Coco de Mer, therefore, was the 'forbidden fruit' eaten by Eve. However, counter statements to this view said that Eve would have had a really tough time giving the fruit to Adam due to its heavy weight.
Uses of Coco de Mer
The Coco de Mer has been put to several uses since its discovery. It is the de facto symbol of Seychelles and lies at its heart and soul. Its applications have therefore been restricted to a certain extent by the Seychelles government.
The Coco de Mer has been the most prized and cherished nut, only increasing its allure. In the Maldives, the nuts were inevitably the property of the royal king. These nuts have often served the purpose of regal gifts and were embellished with jewellery by European nobles to add a charm to their gallery of private collectables. The tough exterior was used as a small vessel (bowl) to carry water and was even made into other wooden articles. The Coco de Mer was also believed to possess miraculous healing properties. João de Barros, the great Portuguese historian, believed that its healing powers even surpassed the precious stone Bezoar. Some even thought of it as the antidote to all poisonous substances.
Modern day uses
Currently, the Coco de Mer is grown as an ornamental tree. The fruit is edible but is not commercially valuable. It is used in Siddha medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and also in traditional Chinese medicine. In the Southern Chinese cuisines, it is also used as a flavouring substance. As a tourist, this is the best sovereign you can take from Seychelles. However, strict rules apply to it being taken out of the country, and you, therefore, need to be careful.
Buying Coco de Mer
The Coco de Mer has arrested the attention of everyone paying a visit to this spectacular archipelago. The distinct shape of the nut, often compared to that of a nicely shaped female buttock, is the main reason for its unwavering popularity. You definitely cannot leave Seychelles without packing it in your bag. All you require is some considerable space in your backpack to show this mother nature's wonder to your friends and family back at home.
Know the rules before you buy
A nut is an invaluable object in Seychelles, and to maintain its sanctity, the government has imposed several rules as to its sale and transport to other parts of the world. The tourists are, therefore, obliged to follow these since breaking the rules results in a penalty comprising heavy fines, and in some cases, even jail. All the Coco de Mer trees in Seychelles are under the supervision and authority of the Seychelles government, including the privately owned ones.
All the shops selling these nuts need to have proper registration. Each nut is given an ID and a green label. The main idea is to stop illegal poaching and to conserve the few 7000 trees that remain. In short, if the seller is unable to produce the right certificate and papers, DO NOT BUY it.
Where to find Coco de Mer?
If you simply want to be in awe of the majestic glory of the 'queen of curios', that is the Coco de Mer, you can spend some time in the Vallee De Mai Reserve in Praslin. The reserve is one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Site in Seychelles and has been named as the 'Garden of Eden'. The tour guides here provide plenty of information about the 'love nut'. The soil here is quite dry, thereby arousing the curiosity of scientists regarding the nutrition of the Coco de Mer trees. Hanging from the stately erect, tall trees, the nuts speak volumes of the legends and myths revolving around the trees and the reserve. You can also spot the Seychelles black parrot and geckos in this reserve.
A considerable number of these can also be found on the Curieuse Island, another natural habitat of the Coco de Mer. You will have an exciting time exploring the trees as you climb the uphill trail on the island. A few years ago, a small population of the Coco de Mer trees was introduced on the Silhouette Island.
Where to buy Coco de Mer?
The Coco de Mer nut is the most iconic souvenir to bring home from Seychelles. These can be bought from all licensed gift stores in uptown Mahe, Praslin and La Digue. A few good places to name are St. Anne on Praslin and the La Ciota building near the hospital in Victoria. However, be sure that these have the holographic stickers and the gift shop has a proper certificate. Moreover, do note that the Coco de Mer nuts you buy as souvenirs have their kernels scooped out and are hollow from the inside (so that these cannot be implanted elsewhere). These are sawn in half and then glued back together. Nevertheless, its charming peculiar shape remains intact.
Cost of Coco de Mer nut
The price of the Coco de Mer nut depends primarily on its quality and size. You can buy the tinier, forlorn ones at SCR 600, while the bigger and better ones come at around SCR 3000. Also to be noted is that all shops do not sell at the same price - you can get as many as 30 nuts at SCR 3000 in one
shop while having to pay a larger amount for the same in another. So, expect a nut that fits in your budget.
When the 'love nut' was gifted to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
If you remember correctly, one thing that made global headlines back in 2011 was the gift presented to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge- Prince William and Kate Middleton by Seychelles. The giant aphrodisiac nut, Coco de Mer, was gifted to the royal couple by the Seychelles government who considered it a privilege to host them for their royal honeymoon. They were even granted a special license to bring home this erotic nut. The 'love nut' was given to the "deeply in love" couple by foreign minister Jean-Paul Adam on behalf of Seychelles President James Michael at a ceremony in Mahe. The Coco de Mer nut was presented to Wills and Kate towards the end of their lavish and lovely honeymoon in Seychelles. The BBC had reported this event as "Royal Honeymooners' erotic Seychelles souvenir". Apart from the sweet memories of torch-lit dinners, picturesque beaches and dips in the Indian Ocean, the other thing that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took from Seychelles in the literal sense was this exotic nut- the Coco de Mer.
The Coco de Mer has raised eyebrows since times immemorial. Its shape is what everyone wants to talk about, be it the scientists or the poets or the locals or even the media. There is something so exciting and appealing about this forbidden fruit that you cannot resist your desire to "taste" it. It is truly a pride of Seychelles.