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Oh, No! Super Rare Double Coconut Palm Dies at Garfield Park Conservatory

By Kyla Gardner | June 12, 2015 5:42am | Updated on June 12, 2015 8:25am
 A sign alerts visitors to the Garfield Park Conservatory that a rare, almost two-year-old double coconut palm died during the winter. A mold of a double coconut seed, the largest in the world, rests next to the sign.
A sign alerts visitors to the Garfield Park Conservatory that a rare, almost two-year-old double coconut palm died during the winter. A mold of a double coconut seed, the largest in the world, rests next to the sign.
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

CHICAGO — Once again, the Garfield Park Conservatory had to say goodbye to a rare double coconut palm.

An infant palm — which replaced the celebrated, 45-year-old palm tree that died in 2012 — was removed from the West Side conservatory in February.

"The second one — we were all excited to get the seed, excited to plant it and tend to it, much like you would a baby animal," said Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories for the Chicago Park District. "And so we were certainly saddened by the fact that it died, not quite as much as the big one, because the big one had been here for so long."

Kyla Gardner explains how difficult it is to keep the plant alive:

The plant also called the coco de mer, or coconut of the sea, is a rarity known for its origin myths, beauty and difficult germination. It is grown from a coveted seed, the largest in the world, that can weigh up to 44 pounds.

The double coconut seed gets its name because it looks like two coconuts fused together, and it is only found on two tiny islands in the Seychelles chain far off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

The first double coconut tree at the conservatory, planted in 1967, grew leaves nearly 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, and was known as the star of the Palm House.

The second, infant double coconut palm was thriving at the Garfield Park Conservatory in February 2014. [DNAinfo/Darryl Holliday]

Staffers hypothesized that the palm died in 2012 after struggling to adapt to a new location, having been moved, roots and all, during the 2003 renovation the Palm House.

The Seychelles government regulates the export of the endangered and internationally protected seed, and there are an estimated 8,200 mature trees left in the wild, with populations decreasing, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature.

So it wasn't a given that the conservatory would receive another after the death of the great palm.

"It was very difficult to get the seed," Koch Unni said in early 2014. He who started the process when he was a floricultural foreman at the West Side conservatory.

But the conservatory did receive one — after working to obtain permission from several organizations — in August 2012. The small seed sprouted in July, surrounded underground by a heating coil wrapped around pieces of terra cotta pots, and above ground by two cages to keep out small nibbling animals.

It was in early January of this year that conservatory staff noticed something was not right with the palm, Eysenbach said.

"It starts to get a little bit yellow. It just doesn't look as vigorous," she said. "The leaf tips start to brown. It’s just not as erect."

The Garfield Park Conservatory's first coco de mer palm in 2007 during the "Niki in the Garden" exhibit with sculptures from artist Niki de Saint Phalle [Courtesy/Kent Oliven]

Thinking the especially cloudy December was to blame, the staff put extra artificial light on the plant to help it recover.

But it kept declining.

"Unfortunately, I think it was too late," Eysenbach said.

The plant was removed in February from the conservatory soil, and it was discovered that the roots suffered an infection.

"A lot of what happens with the double coconut happens underground when it first leafs," Eysenbach said. "We obviously couldn't see what was happening underground, and that's where the infection set in."

The second double coconut palm was protected by cages at the Garfield Park Conservatory. [DNAinfo/Darryl Holliday]

A sign alerts visitors to the conservatory at 100 N. Central Park Ave. of the palm's demise.

"We are very sorry to report that the Double Coconut Palm did not make it," a portion of the sign reads. "It has been a very cloudy winter, and despite our efforts to provide supplemental light, we could not match that of the Seychelles Islands."

The staff is already at work to secure another rare and coveted coco de mer seed, no matter how long it takes.

"We’ve already started the process," Eysenbach said. "We’re hoping to get another one."

The second palm was planted underneath the highest part of the conservatory's roof — 65 feet — as the trees can grow up to 100 feet tall in the wild, living between 200 and 400 years.

If the conservatory can score another of the prized seeds, a new home will be found to combat Chicago's gray winters.

"We’ll definitely put it in a different place that gets more sunlight naturally," Eysenbach said. "And just try it again."

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