Berlin Goes Nuts Over Rare Palm Fruit


The male trees deliver the pollen, and can grow to be 30 meters tall, a little bigger than their sweethearts nearby. "How the pollination actually takes place, and when it succeeds, is largely unexplained," said biologist Albert-Dieter Stevens. Maybe the wind completes the job, maybe it's the insects, or even rodents.

The Berlin Botanical Garden has tried several times to cultivate the Coco de Mer palm, failing repeatedly. During the Second World War, in 1943, two palms froze underneath the destroyed roof of the tropical house. They had been cultivated from seeds that a German warship had brought back to Berlin in the early 1930s. For a long time, no new attempts were made. Then, after the millennium there were two new tries.

But now it appears they have finally been successful. In the large tropical greenhouse the botanists have installed a special heating unit in the floor. "Without the technology it won't work, because the Coco de Mer needs warm roots," horticulturalist Henrike Wilke says. She and her colleagues will need a lot of patience, in addition to hope, because the tree may not survive. "Infant mortality does occur," said biologist Stevens. The most critical time will be when the palm uses up the endosperm in its nut and has to grow its own roots.

It will take at least 25 years -- and perhaps even 50 -- before it's clear whether the tree is male or female. But, no matter which it turns out to be, the biologists in Berlin have a long and complicated battle before them when it comes to raising their charge. The palm will only start developing a stem after 15 years. And, to do so, it will first put forth massive leaves, up to 14 meters (46 feet) long and four meters wide. Prized Through the Centuries The Coco de Mer has long been an object of fascination. Habsburg ruler Rudolf II forked out a king's ransom for the natural rarity, paying 4,000 guilders for a single nut. By way of comparison, the goldsmith from Prague who was paid to artfully encase it in gold typically brought home only 10 guilders a month.

For centuries, inhabitants of the Seychelles had a thriving trade in the nuts. They were exported to a number of places, including India and China, where they were processed to produce medications and potency enhancers. In recent years, however, exporting them has become a bit more complicated. In early 2010, when the Berlin-based lawyer Robin Maletz was allowed to bring one back to the German capital, he first had to obtain a special permit from the government. In the end, he lugged the nut on to the plane in his carry-on luggage, as an official gift from the Republic of Seychelles.

These days, the hope in Berlin is that the palm tree merely survives. After all, it is a very special plant. During a visit to the Seychelles in the late 19th century, British Gen. Charles Gordon, the former governor-general of the Sudan, stumbled upon the following notion: He was convinced that the Coco de Mer was undoubtedly the forbidden fruit of the biblical Tree of Knowledge. Given what he believed was the nut's uncanny resemblance to a woman's "thighs and belly," he said that it was the only thing that could have unleashed all the cravings of the flesh. If there was any tree that could incite the curious, the evangelical Christian explained, it would be this one.

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