Arecaceae, the Palm Family
Hanging around the ocean this week in such beautiful weather, got to thinking about coconuts.
Few plant species have more written about them, given their global distribution, coconutty foods and drinks, useful husks and fibers, diseases, ecological roles, and more. A tropical resort would suck without coconuts, although I hope no sunbather gets beaned by one. If I’m ever a castaway, I hope the island has lots of coconuts.
As a kid, I had in my room a Florida souvenir pirate head carved from one. There’s therefore a million coco nut angles to explore, but what I’d like is to offer a “book report” on fascinating DNA research by other people, pulled together and augmented a lot recently by Australian botanist Bee Gunn and collaborators.
Anybody who has ever been near the sea knows coconuts float to distant shores, coming to life upon washing up on sunny sands on desert isles. Interestingly in that connection, some are self-pollinating to make island-colonizing easy, others need pollen from a neighbor. Stay tuned on that.
Given all that floatin’ & rootin’ you’d think the tropical shores would be inhabited by a messy mix of coconuts of diverse origins. But DNA tells a better story. Here goes:
First thing to know, there are two basic types of coconuts with two original points of cultivation. One, called Niu Kafa, is more prevalent in the tropical Atlantic, west Africa, and most of the Indian Ocean. Its original center of prehistoric cultivation was in or near Southern India. We will call it Type K.
The other type, Niu Vai, came into ancient cultivation originally in or near Southeast Asia, and is prevalent in the Pacific Ocean. For simplicity, call it Type V.
Differences between the two are sort of easy to spot. Type K is regarded as more similar to the “wild type,” although it has long been cultivated. Compared with Type V, they tend to be taller, unable to self-pollinate, and, most conspicuously, have elongate coconuts pointy at the tip, and with thick fibrous husks. Not counting special cultivars introduced recently by plant nurseries, Type K is what we have growing wild along Florida shores.
Type V, by contrast, is often shorter (containing the so-called dwarf cultivars), self-pollinated, and having more-colorful, more-liquid-rich, thinner-husked, more-rounded coconuts with blunt tips. In short, these show more long-term human selection for cultivation, and are the type you’d see growing naturally in say Hawaii or western Mexico.
Now it gets complex. People have been sea-faring for a lonnnnng time, perhaps longer than we tend to think, and they have been moving things around. Examples include prehistoric sweet potatoes in Peru and New Guinea, bottle gourds mysteriously in Africa and North America, agaves throughout Caribbean islands, and papayas in Tropical America and Florida.
Same for coconuts. Floating does not explain it all. Turning first to “Pacific” Type V, ancient sailors transported them from the Philippines to Panama (bringing to mind Kon Tiki, and Easter Island). After all, coconuts make ideal voyage provisions, offering pre-packaged food and water, and are a gift that keeps on giving if planted on islands along travel routes. Later, Spanish seafarers carried Type V to Pacific Mexico. Going in the opposite direction, other pre-Europeans spread Type V “Pacific” coconuts along ancient trade routes from Southeast Asia to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where they mixed genes with the Type K coconuts probably brought there and to East Africa along more northern routes by ancient Asians and Persians. That is, Madagascar was an ancient trade crossroads where the two types of coconuts arrived by two converging trade routes. Coconut names followed the coconuts westward, from “buahniu” in the Tropical Pacific Bali to “voanio” in Madagascar.
How did they get to Florida? Not by floating, but rather post-colonial traders likely provisioning ships from West Africa, coconuts having arrived there previously from India or nearby.