COCO DE MER : My Hunt for the Tree of Knowledge (Part 1 of 5) – Weird Fruit Explorer Ep. 400
My name is Jared Rydelek. I am a professional contortionist, fire-eater, sword swallower and all-around normal guy. Life can get pretty boring for an average Joe like myself so years ago, I took on a very interesting hobby known as fruit hunting. In a nutshell, this is kind of like going on a vegetarian Safari but instead of taking down rare and exotic animals, I travel the world in order to document rare and exotic fruit. There are tens of thousands of edible fruit species out there in the world, many of them with intricate histories linked to the cultures that eat them. Fruit hunting is an incredible treasure hunt where not only do I get a chance to try a new piece of produce but I also get a chance to learn about how it has grown, prepared, eaten, what the people that use it are like, what the area that it grows in is like and I also get a great excuse to travel to places that I normally would not have gone to. Fruit hunting is also a form of collecting and with any form of collecting, it has a Holy Grail. Some may argue with me on this one but for me that Holy Grail is and always has been the Coco de Mer. This fruit is so rare that it’s native to only a couple of isolated islands yet it’s considered sacred and a source of magic in India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China. Its trees are so interesting that some have speculated that it is actually the tree of knowledge and the islands that it grows on are Eden. It also looks like… a certain part of the female anatomy. The Coco de Mer is a protected species so tasting this fruit is not usually allowed but there have been exceptions to that rule. So I decided to go to the Seychelles anyway and try to figure out a way to eat it. I’m at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia about to head over to the Seychelles. Oh Steven Murray is here.
SM: Hi there, Steven Murray, Murray from the farms. Doing this together We’re hoping that maybe we find the Coco de Mer. There’s a chance. Are you feeling like pretty good about it? SM: I’m pretty sure. I hope, I mean… Out of like a scale, like percentage: How likely do you think we’ll actually get to try this thing? SM: I think 85 percent.
SM: Yeah, maybe 80 maybe 70. Oh, you’re a very optimistic person. I’m like at like 25. SM: We’ve got the 5 days to find it so… That’s true. 25 percent I get for one day. JD: 5 days
SM: That’s 125% It’s guaranteed guys. Absolutely guaranteed The Coco de Mer grows in the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. out of those 115 islands, the Coco de Mer is native to only two of them. To begin our journey we travel to Mahe, the largest island in the Seychelles and the only one with an international airport. It is not however one of the lucky two that have native Coco de Mer so after just a pit stop, we moved on to another island. This here is Praslin and see it way in the distance there? There’s the airport the 20-minute flight go from there up over to Praslin. Mahe does not really have a whole lot of Coco de Mer, a little bit. There is one on the Botanical Garden, some on private property. To really get the good stuff: Yeah, I go to Praslin, which is a smaller island with a huge reserve of them. So that’s where we’re going. It’s like riding a bus, a very very terrifying bus. [Pilotspeak] Not so fast though. Before we get to Praslin, let me tell you a little bit more about Coco de Mer. For thousands of years, mysterious hollow coconut-like fruits washed up on the shores of several countries What was weird about these fruits is that they did not match any of the trees that grew on the lands that they washed up on. Occasionally, sailors would report seeing these fruits floating alongside their boats but nobody knew exactly where they grew. This gave rise to its common name today the Coco de Mer or coconut of the sea. The scientific name Lodoicea maldivica is actually a misnomer when this name was given, the tree was still unknown. However, since they were most commonly found washed up on the shores of the Maldives that country was attributed to it. It would fall off the trees and be carried all the way to the Maldives. They would show up on the shore, but nobody knew where they grew so mythology formed that the Coco de Mer was actually a tree that grew underwater. So on the sea floor, trees would sprout out, drop the fruit, and the fruits would float up to the surface and they’d be brought to land. So people believed that and these fruits were just considered to be like the greatest kind of treasure. They’re very rare. Nobody knew where they came from so like royalty wanted them. The king of the Maldives around this time made it illegal to own one of these. If you found any of the nuts and you did not immediately report it to the king, he would cut off your hands or kill you. A different mythology came from the Malayans I believe and they believed that these grew on a small island that the devil cursed so you couldn’t go to the island without terrible things happening to you. So mysterious island you cannot reach or growing from the seafloor, this nut has like a crazy amount of mythology built around it. A lot of like magic around it. Many local legends were devised to make sense of the Coco de Mer’s origin. Sailors spread rumors that sometimes while they were sailing, they would see the treetops underneath the water. Anytime anyone were to dive in and try to reach those trees, the trees would vanish. Ferdinand Magellan, during his trip around the world, came across the Coco de Mer. Local guides provided the crew with an incredible story. The scholar Antonio Pigafetta who accompanied Magellan during his voyage recorded the following: Epic stories with some similar elements also spread around the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In Malaysia and in Indonesia, the tree became a feature in shadow plates. In these stories, a heroic figure Haji Batu went on a quest to visit Mecca. After sailing for months, his ship was pulled into a giant whirlpool known as the navel of the sea. The ship was destroyed and all of Haji’s men were killed. Haji however survived, finding himself at the bottom of the whirlpool where the Coco de Mer grew. Haji jumped onto the trunk of the tree and by driving a nail into its trunk, he was able to pull himself up higher. He then hammered another nail in and climbed that and another above that and in that way, he managed to reach the treetop. At the top of the tree, he found a gigantic nest for the mythical bird of rock When the mother rock returned to feed its young, Haji grabbed hold of its feathers and was carried away hundreds of miles west and after further adventures, he eventually did reach the holy land of Mecca. Besides being the subject of epic tales, the washed up hollow fruits were believed to have magical properties. Some believe that containers made from these shells would actually purify water and keep food from spoiling. Medicines made from the remnants of the fruit kernel were said to cure any poison. In India, shells were halved in order to make holy water vessels known as Kamandalu. These are one of the few possessions that are kept by the Sannyasi, who are Hindu followers who have given up all of their worldly possessions in order to pursue a purely spiritual path. These vessels however, go for thousands of dollars online which seems pretty steep for someone who has given up all of their worldly possessions so it seems like this is more like a holy item that a temple may have rather than one that is actually used for its function. The type of Kamandalu that the Sannyasi do use is usually made out of a gourd or metal. Another item, the Qapar(?) or begging bowl is also sometimes made out of the Coco de Mer. I believe these have a similar sort of story where people don’t usually use it but it is commonly depicted in different artworks of gods and in scripture. There is a very similar begging bowl also made from the Coco de Mer known as a Kashgul and that is used in the Islamic faith. It’s fascinating to me that all of these epic tales and the religious significance around the Coco de Mer happened long before anyone even knew what the tree looked like. Before I get into how the tree was finally discovered, here’s a little bit more from my own epic tale. So, this is Eden. Let’s see if you can find… a good-enough garden for us. The Coco de Mer is the heart of the Seychelles. It’s prominently featured on its currency, in its art, and its souvenirs, even the passport stamp that I received upon arrival. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Praslin, walking down the roads, visiting shops and restaurants. I found this image displayed everywhere. You find these little signs that talk about some of the history here. So this one says this island was frequented by pirates, his local tales about buried treasure Roman Polanski was inspired by this to direct pirates. Actually the sign shape itself is a little Coco de Mer shaped at the top. So yeah, it’s kind of cool. All the locals I spoke to also had a connection to this nut. Either they themselves worked at the Nature Reserve or in tourism or they had friends or family that did. On a small island like Praslin, word travels pretty fast. After talking to just a few people, I managed to get the contact information on an expert for the plants of the Seychelles He actually wrote a definitive guide on all the endemic plants in the country. He was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to sit down with me for an interview. My name is Victorin Laboudallon. I used to work in the section of conservation in the Ministry of Environment for the last 37 years. About four years ago, we wrote about the one that is the Flora of the Seychelles. How long did it take you to write your book? The Flora of the Seychelles took eight years. Was one particular plant very difficult more than anything else? It’s quite difficult to make sure that the plants that you are telling and the flowers are the same plants because if you make a mistake then everything must be going wrong. A plant they call Ptisana Laboudalloniana, that is a plant named after me. Tomorrow if I passed away, in another 500 years, you can still remember me Yeah, it’s eternal. Hello so it’s gonna be the five parts in this very special episode on the Coco de Mer so be sure to click Subscribe if you’re not already and Click that little bell that way you are notified when the next part is out. There’s also going to be a whole bunch of extra features over on my Patreon page More information about that in the description below Thanks so much. Bye bye!