The Fairy smiled, and led him into a large and lofty room, the walls of which appeared transparent... In the middle of the room stood a tree, with luxuriant hanging branches, on which golden apples, large and small, appeared amongst the green leaves. This was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of the fruit of which Adam and Eve had eaten. From each leaf dripped a bright red dew-drop, as if the tree were shedding tears of blood.
Hans Christian Andersen – 'The Garden of Paradise',
in Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales
2015 marked the 130th anniversary of the death of one of Britain's greatest military heroes – General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). Actually attaining the rank of Major-General during a long and distinguished military career, he will forever be remembered for his many acts of outstanding bravery on the battlefield. Not least of these was his valiant stand against the Mahdi's forces during the relentlessly violent Siege of Khartoum (13 March 1884 to 26 January 1885) in Sudan that finally claimed his life and those of so many of his men as well as numerous civilians while awaiting the arrival there of a tardy relief force. In stark contrast, however, it is nowadays all but forgotten that he also held a highly unexpected but passionate belief relating to a certain tropical island and its botanical wonders.
At the end of their 10-day honeymoon spent on North Island in the Republic of Seychelles during May 2011, the UK's Prince William and his bride the former Kate Middleton (now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) received from this 115-island nation's foreign minister Jean-Paul Adam a very unusual honeymoon souvenir – the enormous 'double coconut' of the coco-de-mer tree, endemic to a handful of islands in the Seychelles archipelago. The remarkable likeness in shape of this tree's bilobed seed to a certain part of a lady's anatomy is (in)famous, so the royal honeymooners may well have been aware of it too – but would they also have been aware, I wonder, of its alleged biblical link? Specifically, would they have realised that at least in the opinion of one very notable figure, they were now the owners of nothing less than a seed from the fruit of the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the very same fruit that fatefully tempted Eve and then Adam too, causing them to be banished by God from Eden forever?
Adam and Eve alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, together with the pre-cursed Serpent, interestingly portrayed here as a bipedal human-headed reptile or draconopides (click here for a ShukerNature blog article on the draconopides/pre-cursed Serpent concept) – this painting is 'The Temptation', by Hugo van der Goes, 1470 (public domain)
The coco-de-mer Lodoicea maldivica (sometimes referred as Lodicea sechellarum, but this is a junior synonym) is unquestionably one of the most iconic species native to the Seychelles. Today, it occurs principally upon just a single major island – Praslin, the group's second-largest member, roughly 8 miles long. It formerly existed on several smaller isles too, all close to Praslin, but today it survives on only one of these, Curieuse, situated just off Praslin's northern coast, and is officially categorised by the IUCN as endangered. Additionally, therefore, it has been deliberately introduced to certain other Seychelles islands in order to establish new populations, thus assisting in its conservation. Belonging to the palm tree family Arecaceae, the coco-de-mer is the only member of the genus Lodoicea, coined for it by French naturalist Jacques Julien Houtou de Labillardière and generally believed to commemorate Laodice, the most beautiful daughter of Troy's King Priam (although a few researchers have suggested the French King Louis XV as a possible alternative name-source, 'Lodoicus' being Latin for 'Louis').
The coco-de-mer is a dioecious species (male and female flowers occur on separate trees), it can grow to 100 ft tall or more (with male trees being taller than females), takes 25-50 years to reach maturity, lives for well over a century (its maximum lifespan is still unknown), and sports huge, fan-shaped, leathery leaves, pale-green in colour, measuring up to 46 ft across, 13 ft long, and capturing as much as 98 per cent of all rainfall. However, its most noteworthy claim to fame, earning this tree species a place in the record books, is its gigantic fruit (shaped like a normal, single coconut) containing the huge bilobed 'double coconut' seed, which is the largest seed produced by any species of plant.
[NB - strictly speaking, a nut is defined as a specific category of fruit - one that possesses a hard shell (the husk) and a seed inside. However, in general parlance the term 'nut' is also often used in reference to a hard-walled edible seed (as is the term 'kernel'). Consequently, in this chapter I have completely avoided using the ambiguous term 'nut', in favour of the non-interchangeable terms 'fruit' for the combination of outer shell and inner seed, and 'seed' for the seed itself. As for 'double coconut', this is a term applied specifically and famously to the coco-de-mer's bilobed seed, so I have employed it here with this same meaning.]
Exquisite engraving from 1897 depicting various palm trees, including the coco-de-mer at right of image together with its unmistakeable double coconut and catkin-like male inflorescence (public domain)
Produced by female coco-de-mer trees, the fruit measures 16-20 in across, weighs 33-66 lb (up to 39 lb of which is the weight of the seed inside it), and takes 6-7 years to mature, plus a minimum of two further years to germinate. The seed's bilobed shape infamously lends it more than a passing resemblance in form to a woman's buttocks on one side and to her stomach and thighs on the other side (resulting in it becoming a potent fertility symbol in the Seychelles and also nurturing a traditional belief there that its pulpy white meat possesses powerful aphrodisiac properties).
And as if this wasn't sufficiently suggestive, male coco-de-mer trees produce very sizeable catkin-like inflorescences (measuring up to 3 ft long) that are decidedly phallic in shape.
Beautiful painting of the coco-de-mer's male inflorescence and its ripe fruits, produced in 1883 by Marianne North (public domain)
Not surprisingly, these distinctive features have given rise to some very colourful local legends concerning this unique species of Seychelles palm.
Indeed, one particularly popular folk-belief here is that on wild stormy nights, the male trees uproot themselves, pair up with the still-rooted female trees, and engage in passionate love-making under the cover of darkness.
Inflorescence on male coco-de-mer tree (© ViloWiki/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
The coco-de-mer's fruit is so heavy that whenever one falls into the sea, it is unable to float, sinking straight to the sea bottom instead, where it gradually rots, the husk falling away and the internal seed breaking down and releasing gas, which enables this now-hollow, bare, and much lighter structure to rise to the surface of the sea and float great distances, carried by the current. Because the seed is no longer fertile, however, even if it reaches land it cannot germinate and give rise to a tree (thus explaining this species' extremely limited distribution).
However, so spectacular is its outward form that several centuries ago these seeds would command enormous prices as greatly-prized curiosities among the more wealthy collectors, or were given as gifts to royalty (a tradition upheld with William and Kate!).
The Seychelles first became known to the West via Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's recorded sighting of these islands in 1502, and the coco-de-mer tree itself was formally discovered in 1768 by a French engineer named Barré, who was sent to explore Praslin following France's acquisition of this archipelago during the 1740s. Long before these events, however, this tree's spectacular seed was already well known to fishermen in such diverse localities as the Maldives, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. This is because hollow, internally-rotted specimens were sometimes carried by the sea from the Seychelles to the shores of these and other countries with Indian Ocean coastlines. Indeed, it was the finding of such seeds around the Maldives that led to the mistaken belief among some early naturalists that the tree which produced them must exist somewhere here, thus earning it the maldivica portion of its binomial taxonomic name.
Moreover, the seeds' presence on the sea surface led the fishermen to believe that they must have originated from some majestic form of underwater tree ('coco-de-mer' is French for 'sea coconut'), growing in stately splendour beneath the waves. Some even believed that a griffin-like monster-bird deity called Garuda lived in this subaquatic tree's mighty branches, from where it would periodically rise up to hunt elephants and tigers – all complete fantasy, yet still being reiterated, albeit sceptically, as recently as the 1700s by the likes of German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (aka Rumphius) in his 6-volume magnum opus, the Herbarium Amboinense, which was published posthumously in 1741 (almost 40 years after his death).
Strange as these notions might seem, however, an even stranger one would not only be aired but also be fervently supported by a very notable historical figure during the late 1800s.
The figure in question was none other than the celebrated British army officer and diplomat Major-General Charles George Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – and his avowed if highly eccentric belief was that the coco-de-mer tree was in fact the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as alluded to in the Bible. But how and why did he come to believe in such an extraordinary notion?
Spurred on by his deeply-held religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian, Gordon had long been passionately (some would even say obsessively) interested in attempting to track down present-day localities that might correspond to various significant sites described in the Bible – in particular the Garden of Eden.
Traditionally, the favoured sites among those who believe that the Garden of Eden truly existed have been in the Middle East, two of the most popular suggestions being a location at the head of the Persian Gulf or one close to Tabriz in Iranian Azerbaijan. As for the Tree of Knowledge: scholars considering it to have been real rather than merely symbolic have typically supported conservative, non-controversial identities for it, such as a species of fig tree or apple tree. Gordon, however, nurtured radically different ideas – ideas that concerned a location far removed from the Middle East, and an exotic tree that bore a fruit much more extraordinary than any fig or apple.
During the early 1880s, Gordon spent time in Mauritius as Commander of the Royal Engineers, and in 1881 he visited the Seychelles archipelago (then part of the Crown Colony of Mauritius), about 1000 miles further north, on a military engagement. This was of particular interest to him for non-military reasons too, however, because his Kabbalistic scrutiny of the Bible's Book of Genesis, coupled with his knowledge of geography and place-name etymology, had indicated to him that here may be clues to Eden's location.
Gordon subscribed to what was then the popular theory that a once-mighty but long-since-sunken continent called Lemuria formerly spanned the Indian Ocean from Madagascar to India, and when he entered a lush green valley on Praslin known today as the Vallée de Mai (May Valley), he became convinced that this idyllic tropical location was a last surviving remnant of the Garden of Eden, with the remainder now lying beneath the waves near to Praslin. Moreover, as he gazed up in stupefied awe at its forest of magnificent coco-de-mer trees, present in great profusion and towering above him on every side in this magical, secluded place, Gordon felt certain that these wondrous plants were the direct descendants of the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created by God and present in Eden at the very beginning of the world.
Indeed, Gordon deemed it likely that the coco-de-mer seed's suggestive form would have contributed to the temptation that the Tree of Knowledge's forbidden fruit represented. For as he was later to comment to leading British botanist Sir William T. Thiselton-Dyer, at that time the assistant director at Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens:
The fruit is shaped like the human heart, the bud or stem which attaches it to the branch like the male organ of generation. When the husk is taken off, the inner double nut [i.e. seed] is like the belly or thigh of a woman...In a word, its lines are those of the male and female organs of generation, and it is a fruit which cannot fail to attract attention by any one seeing it.
Evidently warming to his theme, in his records Gordon also wrote:
Externally the coco-de-mer represents the belly and thighs, the true seat of carnal desires...[which] caused the plague of our forefathers in the Garden of Eden.
Lending further support to this grandiose notion, at least according to Gordon, was the fact that these trees even possessed their very own Serpent – in reality, a 3-ft-long species of green snake that can frequently be found living amid their foliage.
Nor was that all. Gordon also considered the breadfruit trees Artocarpus altilis present on Praslin to be descended from Eden's original Tree of Life, whose fruit had sustained Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden. For as he already knew well, breadfruit was a staple food not only in the Seychelles but also in Mauritius, as well as in many other locations around the world.
Yet if Praslin's Vallée de Mai was truly derived from the Garden of Eden, how could its presence in the middle of the Indian Ocean be explained? Easily, in Gordon's view – because he considered Praslin and the other Seychelles islands to be remnants of the vanished continent of Lemuria, which, he believed, had existed at the world's beginning but had sunk forever beneath the waves during the Great Flood.
So taken was Gordon with his identification of Eden as having existed just offshore of Praslin, with the Vallée de Mai its last surviving portion, and the coco-de-mer as the Tree of Knowledge, with its immense fruit the still-existing instrument of humanity's fall and expulsion from Eden at the dawn of time, that he wrote various articles and corresponded with a number of authorities, including those at Kew in 1882, as well as William Scott, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Pamplemousses, near Port Louis, Mauritius, concerning his eccentric beliefs.
Vallée de Mai palm forest (© Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
He also sent specimens of the coco-de-mer and breadfruit tree fruits to Kew, and even prepared a detailed map in which he linked Praslin to the four rivers mentioned in the Bible as landmarks for Eden. Unsurprisingly, however, his beliefs were not greeted with enthusiasm from contemporary scientists and writers. In particular, Gordon's concept of the coco-de-mer with its gargantuan double coconut as a plausible contender for the Tree of Knowledge was swiftly and robustly dismissed by his critics.
After all, as pointed out very reasonably by writer and onetime Seychelles resident H. Watley Estridge, for instance, how was Eve meant to climb to the top of a 100-ft-tall tree and carry down with her a fruit almost 2 ft across and weighing up to 66 lb (heavier than 3 bowling balls!), and then take a bite through its immensely hard, 4-in-thick husk before offering it to Adam? True, she might have sought one that had already fallen to the ground; however, the Bible specifically states that Eve had stretched out her hand and plucked a fruit – clearly implying that she had taken it directly from the tree.
Eve stretching out her hand and plucking a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as portrayed in 'The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man' by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens (public domain)
Alternatively, as Gordon deftly represented in a detailed drawing prepared by him, the afore-mentioned green snake associated with coco-de-mer trees on Praslin could have made its way up the tree to fetch one for Eve. Yet this option has to assume of course that such a modestly-sized reptile actually possessed the strength and dexterity to carry it back down to her (or even to bite through its sturdy stem so that it would then fall to the ground) after securing one!
However, the considerable problem posed by Adam and Eve lacking the necessary density of dentition to avoid breaking their teeth when attempting to bite through its rock-hard exterior and equally firm kernel inside seemingly defied all attempts at resolution. Even the resourceful Gordon himself was at a loss to provide a satisfactory response to this particular obstacle.
Equally, how could the breadfruit tree be descended from Eden's Tree of Life when it wasn't even endemic to the Seychelles? This species' ancestral, wild homeland was New Guinea (and possibly the Moluccas and Philippines too), from where it was subsequently introduced to many Polynesian islands, beginning around 3000 years ago, and from these to the Caribbean by the French during the late 1700s, and thence to the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Africa, much of Asia, Central and South America, northern Australia, and southern Florida.
As for Lemuria, what physical proof was there to support the theory that this supposedly lost continent had ever existed to begin with? None, at least as far as the scientific world was – and still is – concerned, with no known geological formation under the Indian Ocean corresponding to Lemuria, and with the discontinuities in biogeography that the concept of Lemuria seemed to explain during the 1800s later being rendered superfluous and obsolete by modern theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.
Map of Lemuria superimposed on the modern continents, from William Scott-Elliot's book The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, 1896 (public domain)
Following Gordon's tragic death in 1885, his idiosyncratic theories regarding Eden, its Tree of Knowledge, and their supposed link to the Seychelles fell into disrepute and were swiftly discarded, scarcely even referred to, let alone documented in detail, within modern-day publications – until now.
Nevertheless, the magic and mystery surrounding the coco-de-mer lives on. For with ultimate, bare-faced irony, the species whose female trees notoriously produce enormous, unashamedly lewd seeds that impersonate a woman's pelvis and whose male trees infamously yield huge, decidedly phallic inflorescences laden with pollen has never revealed the modus operandi by which its pollination is actually effected in the wild state.
How ironic it would be if the Seychelles' 'Tree of Knowledge' were found to be pollinated by a serpent! (public domain)
Is the male tree's pollen simply dispersed by the wind (anemophily), or is pollination a zoophilous process (i.e. involving animals, perhaps insects, or birds, or bats, or even reptiles)? How deliciously delightful (not to mention supremely ironic) it would be if the coco-de-mer's pollinator proved to be none other than the green snake that lurks amid its foliage – or the Tree of Knowledge propagated by the Serpent, as Gordon might have described such a discovery.
Yet not even Gordon, surely, could ever have imagined anything quite as Fortean as that!
An extremely unusual portrayal of the Tree of Knowledge – 'Tree of Knowledge (Initiation)', by Mordecai Moreh (copyright free)
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An almost dream-like portrayal of Eve being tempted by the Serpent alongside the Tree of Knowledge and a sleeping Adam in the Garden of Eden, by William Blake (public domain)