January 23, 2018

The ‘Tree of Heaven’

Coconut water is said to have numerous health benefits

The coconut is described as the ‘Tree of Heaven’ because almost every part of the crop, from the roots, to the bark, to the fruit, has been of some economic value to the locals long before the Europeans ever knew about the tree.

Also called “the tree which provides all the necessities of life” in India, and “the tree of a thousand uses” in Malay, the coconut’s flowers, husk, shell, water, milk, leaves, sap, bud, and the white, fleshy part of the seed- the coconut ‘meat’, are all used up by the inhabitants of the tropics.

Almost everywhere you look in Guyana and the Caribbean you must see a coconut tree. Once there is a yard or an open field, there will be at least one coconut tree standing.

But very few, if any, consider where the coconut came from, taking it for granted that it is ‘native’ to the Caribbean and Guyana.

Picking coconuts in Guyana (Photo from Rusty Travel Trunk)

The actual origin of the coconut is still uncertain, with the term “Botanical Romance” being used derisively in 1910 to describe some claims of the origin of this ordinary fruit.

Some authorities suggest South Asia while others claim that it originated in the part of Gondwanaland that is now South America. Some insist it was carried while others insist on the possibility of dispersal by ocean currents.

Fossil records suggest that New Zealand and parts of India bore similar ‘coconut-like’ but smaller plants more than 10 million years ago.

According to some scientists, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World he did not find coconuts, and the Portuguese travelled the length of Africa to the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope) without finding any. Vasco da Gama had to reach the Indian Ocean in 1498 before “coquos” were recognised.

It was during the age of exploration, or the “Nautical period” that the coconut gained popularity for its numerous beneficial uses to the European seafaring explorers -from providing uncontaminated drinking water to caulking leaks (ensuring its worldwide distribution and confusing those who ask the “did it float or was it carried?”question).

A letter written in 1836 noted that the coconut was seen as an invaluable for extensive cultivation in the African and West Indian colonies especially for the coconut oil, which burned “smoke-free.”

In 1853, A.R. Wallace, British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist, would write about the coconut palm in the Amazon region, “It is in a foreign land. It flourishes . . . but no part of it is applied to any useful purpose, the fruit only being consumed as an occasional luxury. In the towns and larger villages where the Portuguese have settled it has been planted, but among the Indians of the interior it is still quite unknown.”

According to one historical account, in 1869 “The King coconut was introduced to Jamaica from Ceylon (via Kew Gardens). It cannot now be traced.” But it is reported that in 1962 “Brazil had ten million dwarf King Coconut palms, all of which were the offspring since 1942 of two palms that had survived importation from Ceylon in 1925.” Another account claims that foreign coconut varieties were introduced to the British West Indies in 1921 and 1923.

The next time you stop at the coconut vendor and ask for coconut water, remember the history of the common coconut.