Go ahead. Let your imagination go wild. You’re not the only one who thinks this thing looks exactly like a woman’s behind. It’s really a type of coconut. And its erotic depiction has, for centuries, made it alluring to those who have come across it. Its complicated life cycle and a highly selective courtship process has landed this plant species in the rare and endangered category.
This palm Tree is scientifically known as the Lodoicea maldivica, in part because early explorers first found the seeds floating near Maldives, further east. Some reports say that, at some point in history, it was also called Lodoicea callipyge with “callipyge” meaning “beautiful buttocks” in Greek. Commonly called the “double coconut palm” in English, the French “coco de mer” tends to be used more often, perhaps because it adds to the allure. But it has been called a range of other names from the “love nut” to the “butt nut.”
The coco de mer is endemic to the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles. Among the country’s 115 islands, this palm is found on just two of them - Praslin and Curieuse - which together make up only 41 square kilometers. Today, only about 8,200 trees exist in Seychelles and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified it endangered.
What a Difficult Life
Evolution helped the coco de mer survive by bestowing it with massive seeds, the largest in the world. However, evolution has not helped this palm thrive. The tree’s specific needs and unique life cycle has made it difficult for the coco de mer to lift itself out of of the endangered list.
The tree, which can grow up to about 34 meters, high takes 25 years or more to reach full maturation and start bearing Fruit. The fruit then takes another seven years to mature to its full size. So a tree, essentially, cannot reproduce until about 30 years into its lifecycle.
These palms are dioecious, meaning that the species has distinct male and female plants with distinctive flowers. The flowers on the female tree are quite demanding and don’t make it very easy for the male flowers to pollinate them. They are active only one at a time and for only few hours each day. So opportunities for pollination are small.
Coco de mer fruit growing on a female tree.
Coco de mer flower on the male tree.
After pollination does take place, the female palm produces fruits, which are the ones that hold the famously-shaped seed. Most female trees grow less than 100 fruits in their lifetime, again making it difficult for this species to increase its population.
At full maturity, the fruit can reach 40-50 cm in diameter and weigh as much as 15-30 kilograms. When it falls to the ground, because of its size and weight, it usually drops directly underneath the parent tree. Typically, evolution favors smaller fruits with multiple seeds so that it can be dispersed widely and germinate easily. The ability for the seeds to disperse means that the young tree won’t have to compete with their parent for essentials like nutrients from the soil or sunlight. Here too, the coco de mer, with a large fruit containing one seed, is at a slight disadvantage. It must work harder to germinate, which is why it takes nearly three years. Since the seed is too large to move, evolution’s solution was to give mobility to the seedling.
After the fruit falls to the ground, the husk will disintegrate in about six months. Then, a stem - a sort of umbilical cord - emerges from the seed and burrows itself into the soil and starts growing within the soil looking for an appropriate location to sprout as a new tree.
Saving the Coco de Mer
The coco de mer has been a prized collectible for centuries, and that is part of the reason it is threatened now. With such a slow and long reproductive process, when the few seeds that are produced are collected for trade and not given a chance to sprout, it significantly reduces the overall population.
Today, the trees are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which makes it illegal to trade along with other products such as ivory and rhino horns. The remaining ones are still worth a great deal. One currently listed on Ebay as a museum piece is going for $7,000.