Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks

If you’ve been a faithful reader of this column you’d have seen the quince, the fig and the banana all proposed as candidates for the forbidden fruit of the ‘Tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in the Garden of Eden. There are others but perhaps my favourite is General Gordon’s proposal. Gordon visited the Seychelles in 1881 and believed that the Vallée de Mai on the island of Praslin was the original Garden of Eden, and that the Coco de Mer was the forbidden fruit, ‘… externally the coco-de-mer represents the belly and thighs, the true seat of carnal desires.’

The fruit is indeed remarkable and encloses the largest of all seeds (for the curious the largest of all fruits is, perhaps obviously if you come to think about it, the pumpkin). The fruits and the floating seeds are certainly suggestive of the archaic Latin specific name Lodoicea callipyge – callipyge translating as beautiful buttocks and likely alluding to the Callipygian Venus, Venus of the beautiful buttocks – an ancient Roman marble statue now in Naples based on a lost Greek bronze, Aphrodite Kallipygos. (The current Latin name Lodoicea maldivica seems rather pedestrian in comparison to the allusion in the archaic one).

Coco de mer seeds were known washed up on the shores of the Maldives and seen floating by early sailors – who either believed the seeds grew on trees at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or that they were witnessing the derriere of a floating mermaid – it defies credulity that they could have believed both. The seeds were certainly valued for their curious morphology, rarity and unknown provenance allowing rich speculation in regard to their source.

The coco de mer palm tree that was the source of the seeds was only discovered in 1743 allowing the establishment of another myth. That the beautiful buttocks on the female palm and the phallic catkins on the male palm were actually involved in love-making with male trees uprooting themselves on stormy nights and approaching female trees (apparently the love-making trees are rather shy and there’s no record of the courtship ritual).

A coco de mer seed was an essential exhibit in Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ Museum of Economic Botany. A seed was sent from Kew Gardens in London by director Sir Joseph Hooker in 1879 during the construction of the Museum and has been on display since the opening of the Museum in 1881. Apparently not just an essential for Museums of Economic Botany – Will and Kate were given one by the Seychelles Foreign Minister during their honeymoon in the Seychelles in 2011. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s seed, along with others legally sold, is likely to have had the kernel removed to lighten the weight. The seeds have a reputation of being difficult to germinate, which would undoubtedly be the case for Will and Kate’s. However, a recent article in the Journal of Botany by Edinburgh Botanics director Stephen Blackmore suggests the key factors for germination are the condition and maturity of the seed, warmth and humidity (unsurprisingly for a tropical palm), and, significantly, patience. The seeds may take six months or more to germinate, and disturbance to the connection between the seed and the new plant within the first two years, while the palm is still dependent on the reserves of the seed, can be fatal. Will’s grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, planted a now fecund tree (recorded a few years ago with 70 fruits) in the Mount Fleuri Botanical Gardens on Mahe in the Seychelles in 1956.

In addition to the seed’s sensuality and size – 40 to 50cm in diameter and weighing up 20kg (with fruits totalling twice that weight), the palm is quite beautiful, endangered and extremely restricted geographically. The tree reaches 30m with fan-shaped leaves seven to 10m long and 4.5m wide on a four-metre long leaf stalk (or petiole). Perhaps then it’s no surprise that one could fall in love with the coco de mer (as viewers of the Callipygian Venus have succumbed to her charms). Mauritian-born, Sydney-based artist Jacques Charoux grew up in a country where the seeds provided curious doorstops that seemed unremarkable during his childhood. Moving away from Mauritius the seed reasserted itself at an exhibition of tantric art at the Hayward Gallery in London eventually resulting in Charoux’s pilgrimage to General Gordon’s Garden of Eden – the Vallée de Mai on the island of Praslin in the 1990s. An artist’s obsession has resulted in an exhibition exploring the coco de mer that opens in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany this month.

Jacques Charoux’s exhibition Coco de Mer: an artist’s obsession will be on display in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide Botanic Garden from October 19 to March 16.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 26 September 2013.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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