Back to: Nature online

Seeds of Trade


Region: Australia

Other regions: 

Product: Coconut

Other products from this region: 
   Coconut belongs to these categories: Fibres, Food crops
   and originated in these regions: Australia, South East Asia


Transfer and spread

A map of the origination, transfer and spread of coconut

One of the close relatives of the coconut palm is Jubaeopsis caffra Beccari, of south-east Africa. Other close relatives are the genera Syagrus and Butia of the Neotropics. When Europeans arrived in the New World in the late 15th century, coconuts were confined to a very limited area on the Pacific coast of Panama. How they were distributed across the Pacific is not known, but they were not found extensively in the area, indicating perhaps that their establishment had been recent. It seems certain that there were no coconut palms in the Caribbean or on the Atlantic coasts of tropical America at the time of Columbus's voyages.

Seed distribution in the coconut is exceptional; the coconut, when mature, falls onto the beach and is carried on the tide, sometimes for long distances, to germinate elsewhere. During a series of experiments in the mid-1850s, Charles Darwin discovered that coconut seeds were salt-tolerant. The size of the fruit depends on where the coconut palm is found. It is believed that the wild ancestor of coconut was small-fruited, mainly because of the short distance between land masses in evolutionary times. Coconut palms on close-knit island groups are still small-fruited types, whereas palms on more remote island systems produce larger fruits. Larger fruits are viable over long distances, whereas smaller fruits do not fare as well. Cultivated coconut fruits are no longer viable over long distances, as human selection has made the shell and husk too thin to delay germination.

Floating coconuts are common and capable of germinating after floating in the sea for up to 110 days. Thor Heyerdahl states that coconuts on the deck of the Kon-Tiki remained edible and capable of germination from Peru to Polynesia. This property has allowed them to be dispersed widely by ocean currents and by humans throughout the tropics. This type of dissemination means the coconut is one of the first plants to arrive on newly formed atolls, where there is not any competition from other plants. Accidental drifting of rafts and canoes could also account for the presence of coconuts on uninhabited islands.

Marco Polo was among the first Europeans to describe coconuts, having seen them (he said) in Sumatra, Nicobar, Andamans, Madras and Malabar in the 1280s. Late Medieval writers called it 'nux indica', the Indian nut. The word 'cocos' and its variants did not appear in Europe until the beginning of the 16th century. It is derived from a Portuguese word meaning monkey's face, because of the three eyes at the base of the shell. The first European explorers in Asia and the Pacific found coconuts well established in almost all coastal areas in the tropics. The palm also reached East Africa where Arabs may have introduced it. They certainly reached those areas before the first Europeans, and were recorded in 1498 by Vasco da Gama at Malindi. They did not reach West Africa until taken there by the Portuguese around the Cape of Good Hope.

The ability of coconuts to survive catastrophe is legendary. They arrived by sea and germinated successfully on Krakatoa, after all living objects for miles around had been destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1883. By 1890, coconuts had re-established themselves. Similarly, all flora and fauna were killed by the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and 1950s but, nine years later, coconuts were sprouting on the affected neighbouring islands.

The Spanish brought them from the Philippines to Mexico in about 1540, with Filipinos who were brought from what is now Manila. The Filipinos introduced the practice of toddy-tapping and 'tuba' (the name still used in Mexico for toddy) is a Filipino word. The Spanish probably spread coconuts throughout the Spanish Caribbean and the Portuguese took them to Brazil. Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin's collaborator on the first paper about natural selection in 1858, remarked that they flourished in places settled by the Portuguese but not where there were only native Amerindians. Coconuts carried by ocean currents can establish themselves on open coasts without the aid of man. Support for this idea is the presence of coconuts in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. These were uninhabited until first visited by the ship East Indiaman Ascension in 1609, when sailors found numerous coconuts lining the shore.