The coconut, Cocos nucifera, is the most important of cultivated palms. Its nearest relatives, whether or not regarded as in the same genus, are natives of tropical America. For this and for other reasons which have been presented by Cook, it must be believed that the coconut is a native of America, and that it was carried westward across the Pacific in prehistoric times. While the nut will float and retain its power of germination for a considerable time, its propagation from island to island in known cases has practically always been the deliberate work of men, and it is probable that men were also responsible for its crossing the Pacific. It was a cultivated plant in Polynesia and Malaya, and in many places the chief crop, at the time of the discovery of this part of the world by Europeans. But it reached Ceylon recently enough so that its introduction is a matter of fairly reliable legend. It is now grown in all tropical countries except the interior of continents. Its cultivation extends somewhat beyond the tropics, both north and south, but its growth at these extremes, in Florida, India and Madagascar, is not thrifty enough to give it any industrial importance.

Within the last two decades, the rise in the price of oils and the discovery of new uses for coconut-oil have caused a tremendous increase in the area devoted to the plantation and cultivation of coconuts.

Plate XXVII. Figs. 1011, 1012, 1014, 1015.

Coconut in flower and fruit. Southern Florida.

Plate XXVII. Coconut in flower and fruit. Southern Florida.

Climatic Conditions Favorable For The Coconut

The coconut makes on the climate the characteristic demands of a typically tropical plant. It thrives where the mean annual temperature is 72° F. or higher, and where there are no great differences in temperature between seasons. Except where supply of ground water makes it independent of local rainfall, the coconut demands an annual rainfall of at least one meter (about 40 in.); and this precipitation should be well distributed through the year. In most of the best coconut countries, the rainfall is considerably more than one meter. The coconut can endure exceedingly drying conditions for short periods, and is accordingly adapted to the intense light of the seashore, to resisting strong winds, and to enduring salt water about its roots for short periods of time. Moreover, it will live through prolonged droughts. But long dry seasons cut down the crops; and the damage done by droughts lasts for as much as two or three years after the return of rain. A dry season of five or six months every other year will keep the crop at all times down to not more than 40 per cent of what it would be if the supply of water were constant. If there is an ample supply of soil-water, dryness of the atmosphere is favorable to the best production.

Seacoasts usually have higher land back of them, and the ground-water from the higher country circulates through the soil toward the sea. Near the shore it comes near enough to the surface to be reached by the roots of the coconut. For this reason, coconuts thrive on the seashore under climatic conditions that prevent good development in the interior. This is the principal ground for the idea that coconuts thrive only near the sea. Around the bases of volcanoes in the interior, similar soil conditions are met with, and such localities are admirably adapted to this crop.

End of a mature coconut. The nut sprouts usually from the largest eye.

Fig. 1011. End of a mature coconut. The nut sprouts usually from the largest eye.

Propagation And Cultivation

The coconut is produced only by seed. Nuts for this purpose should of course be selected from conspicuously good trees. They are usually planted in seed-beds, although, on a small scale, there are various other local methods of handling them during germination. The best treatment is to take them from the seed-bed when the plumule is not more than 6 inches high, which will usually be after about six months. To avoid the expense of keeping the groves clean while the trees are small, it is common practice to leave the nuts for a longer time in the seed-beds, but the transplanting of older seedlings, even with the greatest practicable care, sets them back for several months. In the Jaffna district of northern Ceylon, the nuts are transplanted from the first seed-beds to others in which they have more room, and are not put in their permanent places until they are three or four years old.

In the first years after the coconuts are transplanted, it is good policy to raise catch-crops between the trees. But these crops should be so chosen that they will not compete with the coconut for fight or water; and from the profit they pay, a return should be made to the soil of fertilizers at least sufficient to replace what they have removed. By the time the grove is four years old, the coconuts will shade the ground and it will no longer be possible to raise catch-crops on a large scale. Then, but not before this time, it is good practice to use the grove for pasture. The returns from live-stock should be at least sufficient to pay for keeping the plantation in good condition and cattle will themselves do a large part of the work in keeping down the other vegetation. Pasturing of other live-stock in coconut groves is in general not to be recommended. It is not customary anywhere in the tropics to give to coconut plantations such cultivation as is given to orchards in temperate countries. It has even been believed that any but the most shallow cultivation would be detrimental by destroying the roots near the surface, and that machine-cultivation was likely to be too expensive to be profitable, in view of the time that it would have to be kept up before the coconut begins to pay returns.

Limited experience in the Philippines indicates that real cultivation produces very much the same results with coconuts as it does with other crops. Coconuts respond, as do other crops, to the application of manures containing potash, nitrogen, and phosphorus. So far as the very limited evidence shows, the demand for these three fertilizing elements is in the order given. With ordinarily good treatment, coconuts come into bearing in seven or eight years. Single trees of standard varieties will bear fruit in five years, while others will require ten. If the coconut is treated as a wild crop, which is by no means uncommon, and little or no attention is given it after the first three years, it will be ten or fifteen years, as a rule, before a full crop is produced and even then the crop will be an inferior one.

Pests

With the increase in the industry in the tropical world, and with the increase in commerce, there have been created conditions favorable to the development and spread of pests. Twenty years ago, serious coconut pests were practically unknown, and only eight years ago, Prudhomme, in an excellent general treatment of the coconut industry, listed as serious pests only two or three insects and no other organisms. There are now known as serious pests various species of Rhynchoph-orus, known as palm weevils; Oryctes, called the rhinoceros beetle; a scale, Aspidiotus destructor, closely related to the San Jose scale; at least two fungi, and the organisms causing bud-rot. The latter have been determined in the West Indies to be Bacillus Coli, and in India to be a fungus, Pythium palmivorum. Besides these, there are a large number of minor or local pests, including weevils and other beetles, the larvae of moths and butterflies, insects of other groups, and fungi. Damage is also done in places by crustaceans, and by rats and other higher animals.

Forests made up of one kind of tree practically do not exist in nature in the tropics; and when such forests are made, as has been done with the coconut, the prevention of devastation by pests will be accomplished only by greater care than is ordinarily demanded to protect the crops of temperate lands.

Varieties

A very large number of varieties of coconuts is known in different parts of the tropics, but a careful comparative study of their merits has never been made on a large scale and with nuts from many different sources. The best experiment began less than a decade ago in Madagascar. In several localities in the Philippines, there are strains of very large nuts, of which, as a plantation average extending over years, 3,300 produce a ton of copra. In favorable seasons the production has been at the rate of a ton from 2,800 nuts. There are reports of similar large nuts from other countries, but no data as to their yield on a plantation scale. In the parts of the Philippines having the greatest coconut industry, it requires 5,600 to 6,000 nuts to produce a ton of copra, and the same figures apply to Ceylon and various other coconut countries. In still other places the nuts are so small that 7,000 are required to the ton. There are varieties characterized by shape and by color, but these characteristics seem not to be related to the yield either of copra or oil. The nuts of the Laccadive and Maldive Islands are reputed to produce a particularly good fiber. Throughout the eastern tropics, coconuts are locally used to produce liquor.

For this purpose, early maturing varieties that are likely also to produce very small nuts, but numerous clusters, are selected. There are varieties in Ceylon and the Philippines which bear at the age of four years, while the varieties in extensive cultivation and used for the production of copra can none of them be relied upon to produce a crop in less than seven years and not in less than ten years unless properly treated. A Philippine variety known as Makapuno has the interior of the nuts completely filled with a soft, sweet tissue, used as a table delicacy. Such nuts sell locally for about 10 cents, while the ordinary nut is worth 2 or 3 cents.