Nineteenth century transport troubles for two tonne palm
By: Kat Harrington - 08/12/2010
Directors' correspondence from the archive reveals the difficulty of transporting an unusual two tonne palm to the Gardens.
Wenceslas Bojer and the coco-de-mer
Continuing from last month's Mauritius based correspondence; we recently digitised a series of letters from Wenceslas Bojer, a naturalist who helped to establish the Natural History Society of Mauritius and worked extensively in Madagascar and Africa.
Writing in January 1852 to then director Sir William Jackson Hooker, Bojer advises that he has a beautiful germinated plant of the celebrated double coconut from the Seychelles. The double coconut, also known as the coco-de-mer or sea coconut (Lodoicea maldivica), is a palm endemic to islands in the Seychelles. The plant is renowned for having the largest seed in the plant kingdom at 40 to 50 cm in diameter and weighing up to 30 kg! After germination the giant nut becomes hollow and can be washed out to sea. In this way many drifted to the Maldives where they were gathered from beaches and valued as an important trade and medicinal item.
A coco-de-mer seed on display in Kew's palm house
Mythical tree from the bottom of the sea?
Until the true source of the nut was discovered in 1768, the double coconut was believed by many to grow on a mythical tree at the bottom of the sea! Magical properties were ascribed to the nuts, and European nobles in the sixteenth century had the nut shells polished and decorated with valuable jewels as collectibles for their private galleries. Legend has it sailors who first saw the nut floating in the sea imagined that it resembled a woman's disembodied buttocks. This association is reflected in one of the plant's archaic botanical names, Lodoicea callipyge Comm. ex J. St.-Hil., in which 'callipyge' is from the Greek meaning 'beautiful rump'.
Tom Hare's wicker sculpture of the coco-de-mer nut is on display outside the Nash Conservatory
Bojer had for some 20 years tried to obtain a growing plant of the double coconut. In his letters he promises to send the plant, as his correspondent had expressed his hearty wish to obtain one for Kew's Palm House in a letter from 1849. Bojer discusses the potential problems of sending the item, which in its cask weighs two tonnes. He jests that if the Captain brings it successfully home he should be awarded the cross of St Patrick by Her Majesty. He promises to have the cask consolidated and a glass dome made for it like Paxton's Crystal Palace in miniature.
Hooker accepts Bojer's offer to send the eight foot tall plant. Bojer worries about being able to transport it under glass, as he had intended, should the plant get any bigger. He ships the palm on board the 'Queen of the South' in October 1852. Despite heavy rain the giant cask was placed on board safely. It was impossible to cover the plant with glass because a second leaf came out, but, as it was well rooted, it arrived safely in November. Bojer had been concerned having heard that the 'Queen of the South' was detained for weeks to make repairs to its machinery and consequently it arrived in England in the midst of winter.
Unfortunately Bojer's plant did not survive at Kew. James Duncan, director of the Botanic Garden in Mauritius, wrote to Kew in 1857 having prepared replacements to send. The Directors' Correspondence team are still working through the Asian correspondence collection to find if Duncan's double coconuts did in fact arrive safely.
A painting by Marianne North of the Coco de Mer Gorge in Praslin, with a distant view of Mahe Silhouette and the Cousins, Seychelles (Painting 474)
A species under threat today
Today the coco-de-mer is rare and protected. Past over-harvesting of the nuts for sale to tourists altered the structure of the wild population. Remaining populations are also threatened by fire and encroachment by invasive plants. Trade in the seeds is now closely controlled, but poaching remains a problem. You can see this vulnerable plant today in Kew's Palm House.
All of Kew's African and Latin American Director's Correspondence is available to view online via JSTOR Plant Science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
Search the Herbarium Catalogue for the double coconut palm, Lodoicea maldivica.
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