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The History and Origin of the Coconut

Updated on December 17, 2015
Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)
Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)

The Coconut

The Coconut is a wonderful and tasty fruit that is world renowned for its versatility as seen by its many uses. Botanically speaking the coconut is a drupe and not a nut, as commonly believed. Coconuts are different from any other fruits because they contain a large quantity of water and when immature they are known as tender-nuts or jelly-nuts and may be harvested for drinking. When mature, they still contain some water and can be used as seed nuts or processed to give oil from the kernel, charcoal from the hard shell and coir from the fibrous husk.

The term coconut dates back to the 16th century and derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word coco, meaning "a grin", "a monkey face" respectively, since there is a slight resemblance to a human face or a monkey head because of the three tiny indents on the hairy shell of the fruit. Cocos nucifera is a scientific term for the coconut tree, or coconut palm.

Tropical and subtropical regions are the plants natural habitat and it typically grows along shorelines, prospering in sandy soils. The fruit prefers rainy and sunny weather, and can’t resist colder temperatures. For greatest growth the plant requires areas of high humidity.

Mature Coconut Palm Tree
Mature Coconut Palm Tree

Origins

The true origin of the coconut is unknown, however there are two leading theories as to where the plant originated. Some researchers point to Malaysia as the indigenous habitat of the coconut while others suggest north-west South America as its point of origin. It’s widely believed that seafarers were responsible for the worldwide spread of the coconut. Coconut palms are found throughout the world now along coasts of tropical beaches from the Caribbean to Madagascar and Hawaii. However the tree is not a native species to these areas.

Early sailors were eager to bring coconuts along on their travels, and for good reasons. Coconuts were not only a source of both food and water but different parts of the coconut palm could also be used for other purposes. Alcohol and sugar can be extracted from its sap, and coconut oil from the nut itself, for example.

Since the coconut has been crossed, cultivated, and transported for thousands of years its true origins have become clouded, but recent scientific advances in DNA have allowed scientist to better pinpoint the origins of this plant. By mapping the relatedness of coconut palms throughout the world, it’s possible to discover their origin.

Scientist have discovered that most coconuts belonged to one of two genetically distinct groups. The first being a population that traces its ancestry to palms found on the coasts of India, with the second being a population that traces its roots from plants found in Southeast Asia. Regardless of where the plant grows today they still remain members from either one of those two original groups.

How the Coconut Traveled the World

Common Coconut Varieties
Common Coconut Varieties

Two Types of Coconuts

It is now widely believed in the scientific community that since the genetic differences between the Indian and Pacific coconut are so numerous and clear that the two lineages must have been evolving in separate directions for quite some time. Following exploration and domestication of the Pacific, settles would have brought the coconut to the Polynesian Islands. Sailors from the Philippines would later introduce the coconut to the Pacific coast of North America. Meanwhile the Indian variant was being domesticated and spread westward eventually reaching East Africa, where Europeans would bring them to the Atlantic Coast of Africa and eventually to South America.

Besides differences in genetics the two types of coconuts also differ biologically. The fruit of the Indian palms are more elongated and angular compared to the rounder, Pacific fruits. However the genetic differences between both varieties are not absolute. For example some coconut trees, like those on Madagascar, are genetic mixtures of the Pacific and Indian varieties. At some point the two groups must have interbred and produced offspring on the African island. This fact has confused geneticists and anthropologists and they have theorized that seafarers from the Malay Archipelago frequented Madagascar on their trade routes to East Africa. Some of their coconuts could have found their way to Madagascar or perhaps Arab traders could also have played a role in the dispersal of Pacific coconuts.

Coconut Vendor in Delhi, India

Providencia Shipwrecked off the Coast of Palm Beach, FL
Providencia Shipwrecked off the Coast of Palm Beach, FL | Source

How the Coconut Came to Florida

The Spanish brig Providencia set sail from Carmen Mexico bound for Barcelona Spain carrying a cargo of hides, log wood and 20,000 coconuts. As legend has it the sailors onboard had overindulged in strong drink. Despite clear weather and calm seas the ship ran aground off the coast of present day Palm Beach, Florida. The confused and bewildered crew had thought they had landed off the coast of Mexico. Local residents rushed out to the beach to investigate what had happened.

One of the crew members greeted onlookers carrying a bottle of wine and a box of cigars as a sign of goodwill. For the next two weeks ship’s crew members and local residents threw a beach party drinking fine wine and smoking cigars from Havana and consuming coconuts. People were seen throwing and playing with coconuts, it was a wild scene.

Settlers planted coconuts everywhere giving rise to the belief that coconuts and palms in this area originated with this cargo. The Providencia Captain and crew were eventually picked up by a passing ship and returned to Spain. The wrecked ship was sold by its insurance company to the highest bidder who paid $20.80 for it. A reporter later wrote, "From that wreck has grown the palms that line the streets and parks of Palm Beaches. 20.000 coconuts provided the beginning of trees not indigenous to the area, but quite at home, nevertheless."

~ Palm Beach Post, Nov 20, 1938

The Coconut Song

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