August 1996

By Wayne P. Armstrong

Most people think of natural jewelry as pearls, shiny pieces of coral, or precious and semiprecious stones, polished and set in gold or silver. But there are botanical gems that rival some of these minerals in value and beauty. Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient forests that thrived millions of years ago. During the fossilization process, the resins are literally metamorphosed into a hard, durable, plastic-like polymer. Often the amber contains insects and spiders 30 to 50 million years old (or older), perfectly preserved in nature's transparent tomb.

Certainly the rarest and most valuable botanical jewel is the legendary "coconut pearl" that occasionally forms inside a coconut (Cocos nucifera).

Like the pearls of oysters and giant clams, it is a shiny calcareous sphere. It is difficult to place a monetary value on a genuine coconut pearl, but the odds of finding one in a coconut are certainly less than one in a million. To put it another way, if you cracked open and thoroughly examined one coconut every 15 minutes during a normal eight hour work day, it would take roughly 80 years to go through a million coconuts! In his classic six-volume work entitled Herbarium Amboinense, the distinguished 17th- 18th century naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius described and illustrated exquisite coconut pearls, often mounted in jeweled settings of gold and silver, owned by Malaysian dynasties.

The famous Maharaja coconut pearl sitting in the shell of a coconut. This priceless botanical jewel is on display at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in the city of Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by W.P. Armstrong, Palomar College)

This article is excerpted from Volume 6 Number 1 of WAYNE'S WORD, a web site all about natural history and the wonders of botany. It is the work of Professor Wayne P. Armstrong of Palomar College in San Marcos, CA. This is a fascinating website! Volume 6 Number 1 is all about "Botanical Record Breakers" and reads like a Guiness Book of Botanical World Records. Be sure to visit it often as he's always adding more things.

Both this article and the photo are republished with the gracious permission of the author.