Cocos nucifera

coconut palm


Cocos nucifera

L. 1753

pronounced: KOH-koss noo-KIFF-er-uh

(Arecaceae — the palm family)

common name: coconot palm

The name Cocos appears to come from the Spanish word coco, bogeyman, given by early Spanish explorers to the de-husked nut from the depressions in the end of it, that resemble a grimacing face; nucifera comes from two Latin words, nux, a nut, and fero, to bear, carry, i.e. ‘nut-bearing’. The origins of the tree are controversial, some authorities claiming it is a native of south Asia, and others claiming it comes from north-western South America. Now, of course, it has spread right around the tropics, probably aided by seafaring peoples, and by ocean currents.

Both male and female flowers occur on the same inflorescence. Flowering occurs continuously, and the palms are believed to be largely cross-pollinated.

The fruit is a simple dry nut, a fibrous drupe. The husk is composed of fibres (coir) and there is an inner stone (endocarp). This endocarp, the outside of the coconut as sold in shops, has three germination pores that give it the ‘bogeyman’ look, Adhering to the inside of the endocarp is the seed coat (testa) with a thick endosperm, the coconut ‘meat’. The drinkable liquid found inside the unripe coconut is not the coconut ‘milk’, but coconut water. Coconut milk is made by grating the ‘meat’ and mixing it with warm water. The ‘meat’ in a young coconut is softer than in a mature nut. When the nut has ripened and the outer husk has turned brown, it will fall from the palm of its own accord.

In North Queensland, most people are either coconut-palm lovers or coconut-palm haters. The lovers believe that no tropical paradise can be complete without these palms, and that tourists expect to see them when they come to the tropics, and in particular to a tropical island. The haters are led by most local councils, who are terrified that a tourist might be injured by a falling coconut, and sue them for enormous sums of money. They have all trees on council land de-nutted twice a year, and use any excuse to have a coconut palm chopped down. Also in this group are the purists who claim that the palms are not native, and are an invasive weed.

Whether or not the palms are indeed native to Australia, or were washed up on our shores by ocean currents, or were brought here by the first European settlers, is a matter of debate. Certainly the coconut was cultivated in the Torres Strait islands long before Europeans colonized this part of the world, but early explorers often commented on the apparent absence of these palms from the northern Australian shores. There is no doubt that most of the palms we see today have been planted, but also no doubt that coconuts are capable of being carried for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles by ocean currents, and are capable of germinating when washed up on land. While trying to research this question, I glanced through the part of Captain Cook’s journal dealing with the tropical Queensland coast. All explorers of the Pacific were perfectly familiar with the coconut, and indeed used it to supplement the rations of their crews. The only mention of the coconut I could find in this part of Cook’s journal concerned the Palm Islands, not far north of here. Cook could see some palms he thought were coconuts growing on the islands, and, unwilling to venture the Endeavour too close because of the reefs, sent Joseph Banks, Hicks and Solander ashore in one of the ship’s boats to gather some nuts for food. Alas, the palms were not coconuts, but cabbage-tree palms. The journey ashore was not wasted, however. Banks did collect some new botanical specimens there, among them the Lolly Bush (Clerodendrum floribundum).

I can find no reference to the early explorers actually seeing coconut palms growing: the arguments for their existence seem to be based on the sighting of floating fruits, and those washed up on beaches. Captain Phillip Parker King of the Mermaid, anchoring at Cape Cleveland (near Magnetic Island) on 14th June, 1816, found "a fresh green coconut that appeared to have been lately tapped for the milk". Writing in his journal, he continutes:
Hitherto, no coconut trees have been found on this continent; although so great a portion of it is within the tropic, and its north-east coast so near to islands on which this fruit is abundant. Captain Cook imagined that the husk of one, which his second Lieutenant, Mr. Gore, picked up at Endeavour River, and which was covered with barnacles, came from the Terra del Espiritu Santo of Quiros; but, from the prevailing winds, it would have appeared more likely to have drifted from New Caledonia, which island at that time was unknown to him; the fresh appearance of the coconut seen by us renders, however, even this conclusion doubtful; Captain Flinders also found one as far to the south as Shoal-water Bay.

Quite a few Lepidoptera larvae use the coconut palm as a food plant, including:
      • the Yellow Palm Dart Cephrenes trichopepla;
      • the moth Chalcocelis albiguttatus;
      • the Coconut Moth Batrachedra arenosella;
      • the Greater Coconut Spike Moth Tirathaba rufivena;
      • the Cosmet Moth Pyroderces aellotricha; and
      • the moth Adoxophyes fasciculana.

The growing tip of the coconut palm, buried in the heart of the palm near the base of the fronds, can be sliced up to make a delicious coleslaw. In New Guinea it is known as ‘Rich man’s coleslaw’, as a palm has to be destroyed to provide it. I was fortunate enough to taste it when a palm on the nature strip was removed.

Coconut wood has traditionally been used in tropical countries for the structural framework of houses. Wood taken from the lower and middle parts of the trunk can be used for load-bearing structures in buildings, such as frames, floors and trusses. Trunks can be used for poles, as they have great strength and flexibility. The wood can also be used for furniture and parquet flooring. It takes quite a good polish. It does require preservative treatment.

Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2007, 2008
Page last updated 14th November 2018