EAST GARFIELD PARK — To an art museum, it would be like acquiring the Mona Lisa. To a zoo, celebrating the birth of a baby panda.
To the Garfield Park Conservatory, it might as well be both.
Double coconut palm trees have been compared to da Vinci's masterpiece for their rare beauty, and to the endangered pandas for their notoriously difficult reproduction.
The Garfield Park Conservatory had one of the coveted palms for 45 years, and it was the star attraction at the huge West Side conservatory's Palm House.
But after it died in 2012, conservatory officials said it was "unlikely" to "virtually impossible" they'd ever get another.
But today — after much searching, pleading, hoping and nurturing — the conservatory's new double coconut palm measures more than 3 feet tall — and it's thriving.
'VERY DIFFICULT TO GET THE SEED'
Double coconut palms grow naturally in an area that measures less than 65 square miles — about one-third the size of Chicago — on two tiny islands in the Seychelles chain of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. Only a few hundred palms are estimated to exist outside of those islands.
The plant got its name because its seeds resemble two coconuts fused together. It's the largest seed in the world, weighing up to 44 pounds.
Non-growable seeds are often sold as souvenirs to tourists on the islands of Praslin and Curieuse, but even making it out of the country with a souvenir seed is a test in overcoming bureaucratic roadblocks, said Kent Oliven, a double coconut palm enthusiast who honeymooned on the islands with his wife Kelly in 2001 and later loaned the conservatory a souvenir seed.
Souvenir seeds need "proper documentation" and must be registered with the Seychelles Ministry of Environment.
"It was quite the experience at O'Hare, too," Kent Oliven said. "But at the end, of course, it's worth it."
To get a viable seed — one that can grow — is much harder.
"They would never let you out of there with the husk on it," Oliven said. "I'm really shocked to hear [the conservatory] got another one. God knows how they did that."
"It was very difficult to get the seed," said Koch Unni, a former floricultural foreman at the West Side conservatory. He researched the double coconut palm and reached out to the Seychelles' New York consulate.
"I sent an email saying, we're one of the biggest conservatories in the world, we'd like to display one of the seeds growing in your island. What do you think about it?" said Unni, who retired from the conservatory in November.
The request had to get clearance from several different organizations.
The plant's decreasing population — now a little more than 8,000 — has landed it on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" and made its home a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exports of the soft kernel within the seed are also banned by the Seychelles government.
But the reputation of the conservatory landed it a seed, Unni said, and the only thing left to do was get the finicky plant to grow.
A NEW PALM
"I love all my palms," said Sebastian Ritte, the floriculturist of the Palm House and the main caretaker of the new double coconut palm. "But that one's kind of special."
After passing all clearances and receiving all the necessary permits over the course of five months, the conservatory received the seed in August 2012.
The 22-pound seed was soaked in water and then three-fourths of it buried in a special soil mix. It was surrounded by pieces of a terra cotta pot wrapped in a heating coil to keep the soil at 90 degrees. The humidity and temperature above the seed were also closely monitored, and almost a year later, in mid-July of 2013, the tiny plant finally sprouted, the shoot just an inch tall.
"I wasn't even at work when they saw it," Ritte said. "So they called me, and I was like, 'All right, there we go.' "
The seed is planted beneath the highest part of the Garfield Park Conservatory's roof, which measures 65 feet high. In the wild, the plants can grow up to 100 feet tall.
The seed is kept within gates and underneath a mesh cage to prevent anything from falling on it — and to protect it from the odd animal that sneaks into the conservatory.
"If we have small animals coming in here, we don't want them to dig in there and taste it and find it's really tasty," Ritte said.
Gavin Crowley, horticultural apprentice at the conservatory, recently captured a squirrel scampering in the palm house.
“The squirrels think Christmas and their birthdays have come all at once" when they see the 22-pound seed, Crowley joked.
A PREHISTORIC HABITAT
A double coconut palm seed was much easier to acquire 50 years ago.
In 1960, Garfield Park Conservatory horticulturist Robert Van Tress was able to barter for a growable seed when he came across it by chance on a vacation. That seed failed to grow in the conservatory's artificial environment, but another seed was acquired. That one, planted in 1967, was the famous Palm House star attraction that lived until two years ago.
A local news account in 1960 called Tress' seed "his prize souvenir" from his four-month tour of botanic gardens around the world.
When the Olivens visited the Valley de Mai Nature Reserve on the island of Praslin, it left a strong impression on them, as well.
"It was a misty and tropical valley and something out of this world," Kelly Oliven said. "Walking through it, the palm trees were enormous. I felt like a dinosaur was going to be walking out at any moment."
"These trees look prehistoric. They look like they have no business being around now," Kent Oliven said. "There were very unusual creatures and plants, and this is just one of them. It was kind of a magical place."
The islands are not volcanic, but were part of Gondwanaland, the mass of land made up of what is now Africa, Madagascar and India. Millions of years of isolation of the islands led to the double coconut tree and other unique species of plant and animal.
A MYSTERIOUS PAST
That those forests might once have been the Garden of Eden is just one of the many legends surrounding the double coconut palm.
The seed got another one of its names — "coco de mer," or coconut of the sea — when it washed up on distant shores, its origin unknown. Some believed the nut came from huge trees at the bottom of the ocean; others, that the seed, which resembles a woman's torso, was proof of mermaids.
It's also been hypothesized it has magical properties — and is an aphrodisiac. Some legends insist the inside of the seed was the fruit that tempted Adam and Eve.
The double coconut palm is dioecious, meaning a tree is either male or female. Female plants produce the double coconut seed while the male trees produce long, tubular flowers.
Both the flower and seed are noted for their "suggestive shapes." Part of one of the archaic botanical names for the seed, Lodoicea callipyge, roughly translates to "beautiful buttocks."
To this day, scientists don't know whether the seed is germinated by insects or wind. Legends say the trees mate in the night — and anyone who sees them doing the deed is blinded.
Ritte hopes the tree at the conservatory is female, so that it might produce nuts that could eventually be pollinated and grown into new trees.
But it could be half a century before the conservatory finds out whether its new palm is male or female. Even at 45 years old, the palm that died in 2012 hadn't shown signs of producing either nuts or flowers.
"Hopefully it's a female," Ritte said. "And if it's a male, it's going to be really big and nice and beautiful — but that's about it."
THE DEATH OF A DREAM
When the huge leaves — measuring 20 feet high by 10 feet wide — of the Garfield Park Conservatory's double coconut palm began browning in 2011, Koch Unni reached out to experts to see if they could help.
Experts at the University of Illinois, the University of Florida, the University of Hawaii and the International Palm Society were all stumped.
One by one, the leaves died and were removed, and none grew in their place.
"The stump is still down there," Ritte said, pointing to an open dirt area in the Palm House.
Ritte guesses that the palm didn't take well to being uprooted and replanted during the conservatory's 2003 renovation of the palm house. Even the large roots of the palm — which can grow to 10 to 15 feet — had to be moved.
"It just didn't take, that's how plants are. Sometimes when you transplant them, they get a shock," Ritte said.
Unni said the tree may have simply died because it was being grown in an artificial environment.
"When we have it in a captive environment, it is like getting a lion or a tiger from the forest and putting it in a zoo," Unni said. "Its environment has an effect on the animal, and the plant as well."
So far, the tiny replacement palm is taking to its environment and growing quickly. If the plant succeeds in living longer than its predecessors' 45 years, it could live between 200 and 400 years, the lifespan of those in the wild.
If you can't make it to the misty, magical and tropical Seychelles islands halfway across the world, visiting the tiny star growing in the middle of chilly Chicago might just be the next best thing.