It’s time for another round of our Booth Museum Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? quiz.
I’ve worked at the Booth Museum for several years and I’ve seen a lot of really bizarre objects behind the scenes which never fail to leave me shocked and amazed. Normally, at museum events, I bring these objects out to show visitors and have a quick Booth Museum game of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? But under the circumstances of Covid-19, we thought we would write our game as an online quiz instead.
In each blog, we will focus on an interesting object and discover how it was made, where on earth it has come from and throw in a few juicy facts along the way.
Can you guess what the mystery object is before we reveal the answer?
Mystery Object of the Day
This cheeky looking object, that I am gently caressing in my hands, can be found washed up on the shores of coral islands in the Indian Ocean. Legend has it they are the fruit of trees that grow under the ocean…
But despite these legendary tales, the Booth Museum’s own curator Lee Ismail has captured a rear glimpse of one of these bootylicious objects looking pretty peachy in it’s natural habitat…bottom’s up!
And the answer is…drum roll please….
The nut of the Coco de Mer palm, Lodoicea maldivica
The Coco de Mer palm tree, Lodoicea maldivica grows on only two islands out of the 115 islands of the Seychelles archipelago, Praslin and Curieuse. Their huge fruit, which contains the nut, takes seven years to grow and are the largest and heaviest seeds in the world. They weigh around 25 kilograms and reach half a meter in diameter.
Coconut of the sea
Hundreds of years ago before the Seychelles were discovered, these huge nuts landed on beaches of foreign isles, like the Maldives, where the tree was unknown. Many sailors accounted seeing the nut rise up from the ocean and so began to believe they had come from underwater trees giving them the name Coco de Mer; the Coconut of the Sea. This is a pretty story but in reality when a fresh Coco de Mer fruit falls into the sea they are so heavy they sink straight to the bottom and the sea water kills them. However, the sailors’ stories of nuts rising up from the ocean weren’t a million miles from the truth. After sinking to the ocean floor and dying, the external green husk of the fruit disintegrates leaving behind the rump-shaped nut. The heavy internal flesh eventually rots away and fills with gas, allowing the hollow nut to rise to the surface, to confuse unsuspecting sailors. The shells can then be carried by the waves for hundreds of miles and wash up on foreign shores.
The Forbidden Fruit
The shape of the seeds which is said to resemble a woman’s bottom led to people believe they were a powerful aphrodisiac and could be made into irresistible love potions. The old Linnaean name for the Coco de Mer palm was Lodoicea callipyge. Callipyge literally means “beautiful buttocks” in Greek.
If that didn’t leave you hot under the collar, then what explorers found out about Coco de Mer palms in the middle of the 18th century might. Unlike the coconut palm, the Coco de Mer palm has separate male and female trees. It is the female tree which produces round flowers which when pollinated grow into the Coco de Mer fruit. Male palms grow small yellow flowers on a long spiky catkin, which is the longest male flower in the world and I think it’s pretty safe to say, you can definitely tell which tree is which…
The uncanny resemblance to human reproductive organs gave rise to another legend surrounding the plant. On dark and stormy nights when no-one is watching, these sneaky trees are said to uproot themselves and hold each other in a passionate, sexual embrace. During daylight hours, however, reproduction between these trees is much less steamy, but is still surrounded by mystery. The way the female flower is pollinated to produce the nut is still unknown to science. Some scientists believe that bees are involved but others, think this sweet little animal which feeds off nectar and pollen of the male plants might hold the key to the secret.
Bringing up baby
In the plant kingdom, seeds have evolved to be dispersed as far away from their parent tree as possible, this helps to avoid competition between parent and offspring. The Coco de Mer nut is different – its hefty weight means it is unable to travel far from the tree and it has recently been discovered, it actually thrives in the shadow of its parent. Coco de Mer palms are the first example in the world of a plant caring for its seedlings after germination.
So how does an immobile plant care for its offspring? Naturally, the Coco de Mer palms live in very nutrient-depleted soil but researchers have found the soil directly below them tends to be more nutrient-rich, around 50% higher than soil just 2 meters away. The secret behind this partly lies in the shape of the palm’s leaves. Over time the leaves get covered in nutrient-rich detritus including birds faeces and dead flowers. When it rains the pleated shape of the leaves acts as a perfect funnel, directing water and the detritus with it, directly onto the ground below them, ready to be soaked up by the seedlings.
There is much more to be discovered about these fascinating and unique plants, to find out, visit the New Scientist’s article, The secret of the world’s largest seed revealed
You might be able to hold a real Coco de Mer in the flesh at one of the Booth Museum’s events when we re-open. Keep an eye out on our What’s On page.
Read more in the Animal, Vegetable or Mineral series
Grace Brindle, Collections Assistant