Berlin - The captain had surely imagined it all to be a little bit different. The French adventurer François Pyrard wanted to sail to India in 1602, but because his "Corbin" broke down on the open sea, he had to get on the Maldives Too bad that the king there refused to let the castaways go for five years.
When Pyrard and the crew finally managed to escape, they carried the news of a strange fruit to Europe. Time and again it had been washed up on the beaches of the islands. Not only were the things gigantic, they also suspiciously resembled the pelvic region of a woman. The king insisted that such tempting finds all be delivered to him - and threatened dishonest subjects with the cutting off of their hands or even death.
What Pyrard had seen was the fruit Seychelles Palmscientifically, it is called Lodoicea maldivica. it is three to four times the size of a normal coconut. the seeds are also heavier than anything that biologists know of in comparison - up to 20 kilograms. the tree from which the nut comes is one of the rarest palm species on the planet. in the botanical garden of berlin, such a nut, sometimes also called coco de mer, is now germinating. for the first time in 80 years, one of the rare trees could grow in the capital.
A festive party therefore came to the Great Tropical House on Thursday: the head of the garden, the Honorary Consul of the Seychellesa lawyer who brought the valuable seeds to the capital, researchers, gardeners, journalists. drinks and biscuits are served in the shape of palm trees. the fenced little plant in the bed next door is quite inconspicuous despite all the hoopla.
"this winter in berlin is particularly grey, wet and unpleasant," says garden director thomas borsch in his welcome address. he says it's nice to be able to celebrate a symbol of the tropics with the palm tree. but wait a minute: the botanical garden has about 22,000 species, half of them under glass. so why all this fuss about something that looks like any old office plant, at least for the moment? "the seychelles palm is like a panda bear in the plant kingdom," explains borsch, "the symbol of an endangered species."
Huge trees with a complicated love life
The palm tree is in the jungle of the small Seychelles Island Praslin at home, some trees also grow on the neighbouring island of curieuse. that's it. there are probably still a total of around 8200 plants. the huge trees have a very complicated love life. and that's probably the reason why they are so rare.
it starts with the fact that the giant seeds are not floatable. over the centuries, only hollow nuts floated over the oceans, the rest simply sank. there are also male and female specimens of the tree. biologists call this diocese or dioeciousness. the female plants, on which the giant seeds hang, grow to a height of about 25 metres. it takes a whole seven years for the nuts to ripen and plump to the ground. there they germinate, perhaps.
The male trees supply the pollen. At 30 metres, they are slightly higher than their hearts next door. "However, it is largely unclear how exactly pollination takes place and when it succeeds," says biologist Albert-Dieter Stevens. Maybe the wind is doing the job, maybe it's insects, maybe it's small rodents.
again and again the Berliners have tried their hand at cultivating the Seychelles palm. and again and again they have failed. in the year of war 1943 two palms froze to death under the destroyed roof of the tropical house. they had been grown from seeds that a german warship had brought back in the early thirties. then nothing happened for a long time. after the turn of the millennium there were two new attempts. once the plant died, once the nut did not even germinate.
Now they finally want to succeed. in the large tropical house, they have specially sunk a special bed heating system into the ground. "without technology, you can't do it, the seychelles nut needs a warm foot," explains master gardener henrike Wilke. she and her colleagues will need a lot of patience - and a little bit of good hope. because it's not yet certain that the little tree will survive. "infant mortality happens," says researcher stevens. things get critical when the palm has used up the nut's nutrient tissue and has to rely on its own roots.
Export on a grand scale
Whether the tree in the Berlin Tropical House is a boy or a girl will only be known in 25 years, and perhaps not even in 50. In any case, the capital city biologists are facing a long and complicated battle for their protégé. The palm tree only develops a trunk after 15 years. In return, it produces huge leaves that are up to fourteen metres long and four metres wide.
The Seychelles palm has fascinated people from time immemorial. Emperor Rudolph II dug particularly deep into his pockets for this strange natural product. The Habsburg paid 4000 guilders for a nut. He then had a Prague expert frame it with gold in a particularly artistic manner. Incidentally, the goldsmith was paid ten guilders a month.
For centuries, the nuts were exported on a large scale, most recently to India and China, among other places, to be processed into medicines and potency remedies. For a few years now, this has not been so easy. And so it took a special permit from the government for Berlin lawyer Robin Maletz to be allowed to bring the seeds to Berlin in spring 2010 - in the hand luggage compartment of an airplane and as an official gift from the Republic of Seychelles.
So now they are hoping in Berlin that the palm tree will hold out. After all, it is something very special. At the end of the 19th century, during a visit to the Seychelles, British General Charles Gordon had the following idea: The Seychelles palm tree, the former governor general of Turkic-Egyptian Sudan said to himself, must certainly be the biblical tree of knowledge. Since the nut is so strongly reminiscent of the female form, only it could have triggered all carnal desires, the evangelical Christian concluded: "If curiosity can be stimulated by a tree, then by this one.