By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
My husband and I recently took a Caribbean cruise – yes exactly at the time the CDC said don’t. It was just good to be someplace warm. I knew all the islands except Grenada were in the red so I remained on the ship during the entire cruise. I could see plenty of the islands to remind me about the misuse of coconut palm trees.
During a trip to the Dominican Republic, my husband told me took outside and watch a fellow pruning a coconut palm. This tree must have been 80 feet high. We heard about the dangers of coconut palms when we were in Hawaii. As we were traveling through Maui, our guide mentioned that coconuts failing and hitting people on the head was the number one cause of death in Hawaii. The plant is not native there and there is no longer a market for the coconuts so the state is trying to eliminate the coconut palm. This got me to thinking, exactly where are coconut palms native.
Coconut palms are not native to Caribbean islands. This gardener is putting his life in danger pruning off dead fronds and dropping coconuts for the safety of the visitors.
There are many native palms in the Caribbean including Royal Palm Roystonea boringuena. Sabal Palm Sabal domingensis and S. causiarum, Silver Thatch Coccothrinax argentea Thrinas, and lesser known ones cacheo Pseudophoenix vinifera, yarey Copernicia berteroana, guanito Coccothrinax spissa, palma manacla or manacla Prestoea montana, and corozo Acrocomia aculeate. These palms have a variety of practical uses. Ones that would normally come to mind are thatching, home building and fencing. Other products are handcrafted baskets, saddlebags, boxes for transport of charcoal, small shoulder sacks for coffee harvest, broom heads, seat cushions, cordage to wrap tobacco and even beehives.
However, it is the coconut palm Cocos nucifera, that we envision when thinking of a tropical paradise. The resorts in the Caribbean are often happy to oblige us with these fantasies. Sounds great, but for one, this resort grounds maintenance worker must put his life at risk on a regular basis macheting off dead fronds and coconuts and secondly the coconut palm has been determined to be an invasive alien. The coconut palm is native to the Philippines, Samoa, parts of Indonesia, Queensland Australia, Solomon Islands and some other islands in the South Pacific unknown to me. Although it is the most widely grown palm in the world, in all other areas it is introduced.
This is excerpted from The Invasive Species Compendium: “C. nucifera is a palm tree with a great capacity for natural dispersal. The nuts have the capability to survive up to 120 days floating in the sea water and germinate when they make landfall. This dispersal trait facilitates the spreading of this species far from its origin without human assistance (Chan and Elevitch, 2006). Once established in new coastal areas, C. nucifera can grow forming dense monospecific thickets (Young et al., 2010). Humans have also actively introduced large numbers of coconut palms inland from the natural coastal habitat of the species, and nuts (fruits) can move up to 10 metres from the mother tree when growing inland. In addition to its great dispersal ability, C. nucifera has high germination rates, and nuts have no dormancy and do not require special treatments to germinate, which are also elements facilitating its establishment and spread into new habitats (Duke, 1983; Chan and Elevitch, 2006).”
The coconut palm has provided drink, food, shade, housing, thatching, hats, baskets, furniture, mats, cordage, clothing, charcoal, brooms, fans, ornaments, musical instruments, shampoo, containers, implements and oil for fuel, light, ointments and soap. It has been a boon to third World countries. I am not going to deny that I did enjoy the day that coconuts were hashed open and given to us for the coconut water with a bit of local rum for flavor. People in drought situations can survive on this water, which comes from coconuts that are full size but still green. Fully ripe coconuts will fall to the ground. Next time you see a coconut palm, remember it is most likely the wrong plant in the wrong place. Enjoy it but be smart enough to not use it for shade!
The VCE Halifax Extension Office is open with its normal 8 am – 5 pm hours. Masks and social distancing are required. If the door is locked, please knock. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to email@example.com or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Remember the three W’s – wear a mask, watch your distance and wash your hands and don’t sit under coconut palms when traveling in Florida and the islands towards the equator.