Berlin Goes Nuts Over Rare Palm Fruit

PHOTO: Berlin Goes Nuts over Rare Palm Fruit

In 2010, Berlin's Botanical Garden received a rare and precious gift from the Seychelles: a nut from the Coco de Mer palm, prized around the world for centuries. Now that they've managed to sprout the fickle fruit, joy is matched with jitters as botanists in the chilly city strive to keep the tropical wonder alive.

The captain surely imagined it all a little differently. The French adventurer Francois Pyrard intended on sailing to India in 1602. But when his ship Corbin gave out on the open seas, he had to seek refuge in the Maldives. Unfortunately, the king there wouldn't let the shipwrecked party leave for five years.

When Pyrard and his crew were finally able to flee, they took the tale of the strange fruit with them back to Europe. It had been found frequently on the beaches of the islands. It wasn't just that they were gigantic, the fruit's shape was also reminiscent of a woman's pelvic region. The king demanded that these alluring finds be delivered directly to him, and threatened that those who didn't comply would lose a hand, or even be put to death.

What Pyrard saw was the nut of the Coco de Mer palm, one of the rarest palm trees on the planet, also known as the Lodoicea maldivica. It is three to four times as large as an average coconut. They are also heavier than anything comparable that biologists can find, weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds).

And now, for the first time in 80 years, one of these rare nuts is sprouting at at Berlin's Botanical Gardens. On Jan. 19, a group came together to celebrate at the main tropical greenhouse. The director of the garden was there, as were the honorary consul from the Republic of Seychelles, a lawyer who brought the valuable seed to Berlin, and assorted researchers, gardeners and journalists. Drinks and palm-shaped cookies were served. Amid the festivities, the tiny fenced-in plant growing in the bed nearby seemed rather inconspicuous.

"This winter in Berlin is especially gray, wet and unpleasant," said Thomas Barsch, director of the Botanical Garden in Berlin in his greeting to visitors. So it is nice, he said, to be able to celebrate with the palm, a symbol of the tropics. But if the Botanical Garden has more than 22,000 plant species, why is so much attention being given to one that, at least at the moment, looks like an average office plant?

"The Coco de Mer palm is like the panda bear of the plant world, the symbol of an endangered species," Barsch said.

Giant Trees with Complicated Love Lives

The palms are native to the jungles of the small Seychelles island of Praslin, and some grow on the neighboring island of Curieuse. That's it. In all, there are only about 8,200 of them in existence, probably because the giant trees have a complicated love life.

It starts with the fact that the giant seeds are not good swimmers. Over the centuries, only the rotted out nuts have managed to float across the oceans, with the rest simply sinking. There are also male and female varieties of the tree. Biologists call that dioecy, from the Greek for "two households." The female plants, which bear the giant seeds, grow to be about 25 meters tall. It can take up to seven years before the nuts ripen and fall to the ground, where there is a possibility they will sprout. Maybe.

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