The coconut palm. An extraordinarily useful palm that provides food, drink, fibre, timber, thatch, mats, fuel, and drinking cups. This palm is also the source of copra, the dried endosperm, which was the major source of vegetable oil until the mid-twentieth century, and the major cash crop on innumerable tropical islands. This oil was used mainly for the manufacture of soap, and the market declined with the development of soapless detergents and other oil crops, such as soya, canola, and oil palm.
The species is usually divided into tall palms and dwarf palms. It is thought that the former represent the wild type, and the latter are the result of very ancient domestication that brought more numerous nuts closer to the ground and easier to open. There is scope for amateur breeders to cross-pollinate the two types to produce hybrid palms with an increased yield and, in the Caribbean, resistance to lethal yellowing disease.
The coconut is of considerable anthropological interest because it provided a source of both drinking water and Vitamin C on long ocean voyages. Austronesian people were sailing across oceans several millennnia before the Chinese developed ocean-going ships in the fourteenth century, or the Europeans, in the fifteenth century. This ocean travel permitted the colonisation of uninhabited ocean islands, and the spread of the Austronesian family of languages to Madagascar in the West, Easter Island in the East, Hawaii in the North, and New Zealand in the South.
Coconuts spread naturally, by floating on sea water, to the east coast of Africa, and the islands of the Western Pacific. However, they were unable to reach the west coasts of America, or the Atlantic. They were taken to both areas by European sailors in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese took them from East Africa to West Africa and the Caribbean. The Spanish too them across the Pacific to the New World. The palms of the west Pacific were in epidemiological contact with the centre of origin, and were resistant to various coconut diseases. The palms of East Africa, however, had been separated epidemiologically from the centre of origin for millennia, and they are susceptible to diseases such as Cadang-Cadang in the Philippines, and Lethal Yellowing in the Caribbean. Both diseases can be controlled by planting hybrids that are crosses between the Pacific Tall and the dwarf palms.
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