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Rediscovering the Garden of Eden On this island paradise, anything is possible

A woman poses with a Coco de Mer in the Seychelles (Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

A woman poses with a Coco de Mer in the Seychelles (Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images)


May 29, 2024   6 mins

In 1882, General Charles Gordon rediscovered the Garden of Eden. This renowned military hero, who had played a significant role in quelling the Taiping Rebellion and was later to perish at the Siege of Khartoum, had been dispatched to the Seychelles to determine whether this archipelago in the Indian Ocean might be a suitable location for a British military base. Instead, he found himself following in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. 

I recently took a stroll through Gordon’s supposed Eden, and must confess to sensing a certain kinship with his romantic speculations. To enter the VallĂ©e de Mai, a forest of almost 50 acres on the island of Praslin, feels like a small adventure, a throwback to a time when the kind of burly colonialists envisaged by H. Rider Haggard would hack their way through dense undergrowth with machetes. It is what conservationists call a “primary forest”, an uninterrupted ecosystem that has been relatively unscathed by human interference. I can understand why Gordon thought he had stumbled upon the terrestrial paradise. 

It only takes a few steps into the VallĂ©e de Mai before the vegetation engulfs you on all sides. You can no longer see the road, only patches of sky through the ceiling of immense overlapping fanlike leaves. The forest’s isolation for millions of years has meant that it is home to many unique forms of flora and fauna, and it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. “This is a special place,” my guide tells me. She isn’t wrong.  

Gordon’s belief that this was mankind’s original home was expressed in a letter to the botanist Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, then assistant director of Kew Gardens. His case was based on multiple factors. Gordon was one of many religious thinkers of the time who subscribed to the belief in the lost continent of Lemuria, which was said to be the source of human life and to have sunk beneath the Indian Ocean. Before we learnt about plate tectonics, this hypothesis made sense of the corresponding natural features of Africa, Australia and the Indian subcontinent. In his letter, Gordon employs some creative and tortuous logic to connect the underwater clefts at the seabed, one of which runs in the direction of the Seychelles, with the four rivers mentioned in the Book of Genesis.  

After spending some time in the Vallée de Mai, one senses a profound connection to a primordial era. While fantasies of Lemuria have long been discredited, there is a plausible theory that the area is a remnant of Gondwana, the supercontinent that broke apart approximately 140 million years ago. Its most famous plant, the coco de mer, bears a seed that is far too heavy to be dispersed by natural means. It is endemic only to Praslin and the nearby island of Curieuse, although it has been successfully grown elsewhere. One tree was imported to the Palm House at Kew in 1994, and another flourishes at the botanical gardens on Mahé (the largest island in the Seychelles), planted there by the late Duke of Edinburgh in 1956.  

Let’s talk about that seed. I am ashamed to say it took me two attempts to lift it; in my defence I was hungover and unprepared for its weight. Each seed can be as heavy as 25kg, and can grow up to half a metre in length, making it the largest in existence. But it is the shape that has made it legendary. Once the husk is removed, it resembles female genitalia, complete with hair at the pubic region and buttocks at the back. One of the seed’s botanical names, lodoicea callipyge, comes from the Greek for “beautiful rump”.  

Naturally, the seed has always been a symbol of fertility, and there are traditions that the pulpy kernel — apparently delicious — is an aphrodisiac. It is sometimes known as a “love nut” or the suggestive “double coconut”, and one London shop specialising in sex toys and lingerie has called itself “Coco de Mer”. As a symbol, the seed is everywhere on the Seychelles; it is mounted in hotel lobbies, and its image is emblazoned on souvenirs and tourist advertisements. At the VallĂ©e de Mai gift shop you can even buy a perfume which incorporates extracts from the fruit.  

Even before its origins were understood — back before the Seychelles were first inhabited by French settlers in the mid 18th century — the seeds were said to have talismanic properties. When their shells would wash up on the shores of countries around the Indian Ocean (they will only float to the surface once the interior has decayed), locals assumed that they must grow on some underwater tree and that they had “fallen upwards”. In the Maldives, beached coco de mer nuts were automatically the property of the king. Those who kept them for themselves were executed. Today, poaching the seeds from the VallĂ©e de Mai carries a prison sentence, a point that my guide is keen to emphasise. One would have thought that my difficulty in lifting the thing would make me an unlikely thief. 

Naturally, these shells became expensive gifts popular among royalty, a tradition we can trace from the mediaeval period until the present day. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II purchased one for 4,000 gold Florins in 1602, and had it etched with nautical motifs and fashioned into an ornamental ewer (a photograph can be viewed on Oxford University’s Cabinet website). And having spent their honeymoon in the Seychelles in 2011, the Prince and Princess of Wales were presented with a coco de mer seed by the country’s foreign minister. It’s a socially acceptable version of the saucy wedding gift for aristocrats. 

The erotic impression becomes even more pronounced when one considers that the coco de mer trees are dioecious rather than hermaphroditic, which is to say that the species is divided into male and female. While the female trees bear yonic seeds, the males have catkins that are decidedly phallic in appearance and can grow to over a metre long. This has given rise to the local myth that, after nightfall, the boy trees uproot themselves and fornicate with the girls, like a pornographic version of The Day of the Triffids.

“The erotic impression becomes even more pronounced when one considers that the coco de mer trees are dioecious.”  

The trees must be strong, given that they can reach over 30 metres in height, carry dozens of these hefty fruits, and still stay upright during monsoon season. My guide explains how this is achieved by showing me the remnants of a dead coco de mer, a basin of wood which lies embedded in the ground for six decades after each tree’s death. This natural mechanism is similar in concept to a human knee, so that as the palms are thrashed about in the winds the bulbous base swivels in this socket and remains standing. It’s one of those incredibly sophisticated natural features that might prompt even the staunchest of evolutionists to entertain thoughts of an omnipotent designer.

But there is so much more to this forest than the coco de mer. Without a guide, I would have missed it all. She was adept at pointing out the tiny native Praslin snails that adhere themselves to palms. She identified the call of the black parrot, unique to the VallĂ©e de Mai, often heard but rarely seen. She told me about the threats to the forest from invasive species, and in particular the influx of “yellow crazy ants” that spray acid into the eyes of geckos and skinks and other creatures that are essential to a functional ecosystem. Specialists have found methods to reduce this malevolent ant population, but preserving this little ancient realm is no easy feat. The risk of fire is another persistent worry. Forest fires tend to break out on Praslin every few years, and there was an especially severe one in April 1958 that would have totally destroyed the VallĂ©e de Mai were it not for the expertise of a small group of local firefighters.

“As we generally believe that there was a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and a Tree of Life,” wrote General Gordon, “actual trees, set aside for a time to be imbued with mystic powers, there is no reason why these trees should not exist now.” He was convinced that the Tree of Life still existed in the form of the breadfruit tree — the edible fruit of which is often fried into chips — and that the Tree of Knowledge was an ancestor of the coco de mer.

Whether Gordon really believed this or not is perhaps beside the point. The dream itself has a certain poetic grandeur about it and, as he pointed out in his letter to Kew, “if it will save the Coco de Mer species from extinction or go some way towards it you will pardon it”. I personally doubt that the VallĂ©e de Mai was the scene of Adam’s temptation, not least because Eve would have required the biceps of Charles Atlas to pick its fruit and pass it on to her husband. Then again, in this world of natural marvels, maybe anything is possible


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

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Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
27 days ago

Excellent – something I had never heard of prior that adds a bit of wonder


Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
27 days ago

Is AD looking to make a wider point here, using what he found in the Seychelles as a metaphor for us to seek to rediscover our own Garden of Eden?

I’m pretty sure this article isn’t just a travelogue – that’s not AD’s style. His referencing of the ‘weight’ of the reproductive parts of plants could be taken as a means of seeking to bring us back to our senses around the entire sex and gender debate. It’s too precious to become lost in the headwinds of contemporary culture.

philip kern
philip kern
27 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Agreed. But I’m left with the questions and no answers.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
27 days ago

Is the 11th paragraph printed twice supposed to embody that “omnipotent designer”?

philip kern
philip kern
27 days ago

I expected this article to be about an island here in the South Pacific where, thanks to its natural resources, its inhabitants are paid a living wage and don’t do any work. Needless to say, it has become a living hell. I’m not sure I’m pleasantly surprised to find a different sort of content since I don’t really come to UnHerd for botanical news–even if it is a fascinating plant.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago
Reply to  philip kern

That assumes the article is only about a plant, rather than the plant being symbolic of a much wider aspect of something familiar to us all, as alluded to in my earlier comment.
Andrew Doyle is not a botanist!

Daniel P
Daniel P
27 days ago

Very cool article. Been wanting to visit there for a few years but now I am just that much more motivated.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
26 days ago

I assume that ‘hair in the public region’ should have been ‘in the pubic region’, unless there’s a secret, private region we haven’t been told about.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago
Reply to  Sue Sims

Surely the ‘public region’ would be more widely known? Or perhaps, he was referencing the rainforests of the Brazilian.

Deborah Dawkin
Deborah Dawkin
9 days ago

What was that about? Hmm…And as for the photograph?