Romantic images of the islands of Oceania almost always show the beautiful white sandy beaches and pristine clear water and of course the swaying coconut palm trees.

This website tells a little more about the coconut palm which is a central and important part of life in Oceania.


The coconut palm is an important crop cultivated in tropical portions of Oceania, Africa, America and Asia. They grow best in coastal areas between 20 degree latitude north and south of the equator, at temperatures between 27 and 30 degrees centigrade.

There is considerable amount of evidence that the coconut was used to fuel Polynesian exploration of the Pacific, the lucrative Arabic trade of the Indian Ocean, and vast amounts of European exploration as well. The fruits of the coconut palm--coconuts--were used by these seafarers as a source of food (copra), drink (cream, milk, vinegar and wine), fiber for clothing, shell charcoal and carbon for fires, timber for construction and leaves for thatching, and oils for cooking and heating. Today, over 12 million hectares of coconut are grown in 89 different tropical countries, mostly in the Asia-Pacific region; coconuts are used to produce pharmaceuticals, biofuels, detergents and cosmetics.


Conflicting theories concerning the location of the origin and domestication of the coconut palm have been argued for Polynesia, Asia and even South America, where fossils of the oldest known coconut relative are found. Most scholars argue that dwarf trees were domesticated versions of tall trees. Recent studies, however, suggest that there are two genetically distinct groups of coconuts, corresponding to two separate domestication events (marked by light brown ovals in the map on this page).


The earliest was likely in the islands of southeast Asia, from the Malay peninsula to New Guinea. The Lapita culture people who left the region and colonized the Pacific Islands beginning 3,400 years ago, were certainly fueled in part by domestic coconuts. Coconuts have been recovered from pre-Lapita sites dating to 5,800 years ago, but the first evidence of dwarf characteristics (relatively short, self-pollinating, high milk content) is from early Lapita sites, ~1200 BC.

Despite wide dispersal of both types of coconuts, mostly driven by historic and prehistoric oceanic voyages, the two domesticates remain genetically identifiable. Interestingly, both domesticates are talls, and only a few coconuts from the Pacific basin developed the dwarf characteristics.


Since they float, coconuts are naturally adapted for dispersal by sea currents, but genetic studies suggest the historically-documented dispersal by humans has been ongoing since for 3400 years or so.

Harvesting coconuts, Christmas Island (Kiritimati), Republic of Kiribati

Coconuts were dispersed throughout the world by human seafarers along three major navigation routes. The earliest of these were Austronesians throughout the Pacific beginning 3,400 years ago and reaching the Pacific coast of the South America coast sometime before European contact with the New World. A complex trading system including domestic coconuts was in place between Austronesians and Arab traders throughout the Indian Ocean beginning ca AD 400; and finally, Europeans brought coconuts from India into West Africa by AD 1500 and the Caribbean coast by ca. AD 1550.


There are two major sub-populations of coconuts and hundreds of coconut cultivars in the world. Botanists generally recognize two main types of coconut cultivars: Tall and Dwarf. However, despite this variety, all coconut palms are considered Cocos nucifera L., and it is the only species in the genus. Wild coconuts are not known; all coconuts today are dependent on human interaction to survive and regenerate.

Tall Coconut

Tall coconut trees (or typica) are a fast-growing, naturally cross-pollinating group that today has a great economic value for its oil and fibre production. They can grow more than 50 centimeters (1.5 feet) annually, they flower and have their first fruits at 6-10 years of age and have an economic life of between 60-70 years. Tall coconuts grow to between 20-30 meters (65-100 feet).

The fruits of the tall coconut are oblong and angular with a thick fibrous husk that floats really well but is difficult to crack into and contains relatively little milk: this type of fruit is called nui kafa in the Samoan language of Polynesia. The tall trees bear fruit all year round and average 40 nuts per year, with an average copra (coconut meat) production of some 200 grams (7 ounces) per nut.

Dwarf Coconut

Dwarf coconut trees (or nana) usually grow to 8-10 meters (26-32 feet) tall after twenty years, and start flowering in the third year when less than one meter (~3 feet) tall. Dwarf trees bear fruit seasonally, average about 80-100 nuts a year but with only 80-100 grams (3-3.5 ounces) of copra per nut. They have a productive life of some 30-40 years. Dwarf trees account for only about 5% of the total coconut palms in the world.

Dwarf coconut fruit (called nui vai in Polynesia) are round and often brightly coloured with a higher quantity of coconut milk protected by a thinner husk. Dwarf forms are found near human habitations; they are considered a more highly domesticated form that is descended from tall forms.

Art of the Navigators
The Navigators of Oceania
Polynesian Voyaging

click here

  Jane's Polynesia Home Page

click here

  Jane's Micronesia Home Page

click here

  Jane's Melanesia Home Page

click here

  Jane's Oceania Home Page
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 18th July 2011)