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Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

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A member of the Arecaceae or palm family, the Cocoa Nut Palm is the best known and arguably most socially important tree in Oceania. It provides nourishment and materials for creating many different kinds of artefacts.

The coconut palm has become indelibly associated in the European imagination with romantic images and accounts of the South Pacific.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that it is not a native of Oceania.

The tree appears to have evolved in the Indonesian archipelago and came to grow throughout the Pacific as a result of its bouyant fruit being carried by ocean currents and early human migrants. The coconut and its fruit figure in many Polynesian ancestral narratives of the discovery and settling of islands. In the Society Islands these narrative gave the coconut human origins (Henry 1928: 421).

The coconut palm has a slender segmented and flexible trunk rising up to 25 metres from a thick base and dense mat of roots that anchor the tree in loose sandy soil. The tree is extremely well adapted to withstanding winds of cyclonic strength and directional variability.

Fronds of large feathery leaves sprout from top of the trunk, along with flowers producing oval shape fruit up to 45 centimetres in length and 20 centimetres in diameter.

The fruit is a single seeded nut encased in a thick fibred husk. This nut has a rich kernel high in oil content and also contains around half a litre of liquid. Coconut Palms generally produce a first crop of fruit when they are five or six years old and can continue to bear fruit for up to fifty years.

In the Society Islands, the coconut palm was known as Niu or Haari. According to Teuira Henry, Maohi traditionally distinguished at least sixteen principal varieties of coconut palm on the basis of tree height, palm frond length, husk texture, nut size and shape, and attributes of the kernel (Henry 1928: 44).

In most Polynesian societies the fruit of the coconut was once a principal source of nourishment. Often the nut was eaten before the formation of the kernel, or when the kernel was still thin and tender. The very sweet liquid within the nut at this stage in its development was a favourite drink.

In the Society Islands, not only the mature kernel but also the spongy growth and oils sustaining the young plant after germination were eaten.

The liquid within the nut was also used with flowers or wood shavings to make scented hair and body oils. These oils were also credited with healing properties, as well as used as a liquid medium for preparing various medicinal roots and herbs.

The heart and budding tops of young trees were also eaten, and the sap from cut flower buds was drained into containers and drunk. In the European era, the sap was used as the basis of a fermented drink.

The leaves of the coconut were used to make baskets, hats, fans and ornamental headdresses. The wood of the trunk was used for house frames, posts and fences, as well as making weapons such as the long war lances or pikes known as niu, tao or maehae.

The husk of the coconut was used to make mats, brushes and sennit. It was also used to caulk planking in canoes.

As Douglas Oliver rightly observes, in Maohi and other Polynesian societies 'no plant...had a wider variety of uses than the coconut (Oliver: 1: 244)'.

Related Entries for Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)
Places: Anaa, Chain Island
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Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 16 October 2003

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000327

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