Coconut Palm, just like a woman

Just over five years ago I used this image to top a post about leaves farting in the sun. It was appropriately scatological for a story about plants breaking wind (which might be a good name for a television series one day) but today I want you to focus on the palm tree as I make the case for a Coconut Palm being like a woman.

Rest assured this isn't some Carry on up the Coconut routine, where I compare naughty bits of a plant with naughty bits of a human - that's better done with the Coco de Mer anyway. No, I just want to explore a comment made by friend of a friend about the similarity in what we might call their fertility cycles. Not monthly cycles but over the life of the palm and the woman.

Palms can live for a few decades, or up to 150 years or more, depending on the species. They tend to not live as long as 'true trees' which, as I have argued, can be theoretically immortal. In this cartoon, from In Praise of Plants, French botanist Francis HallĂ© illustrates what an animal might look like if it did with its waste what a long-lived plant does. That is, turn it into a sturdy trunk, or in the case of a palm, a trunk-like stem.

A palm is a grass- or lily-like organism that has developed a rather sturdy stalk, perhaps better termed a stem than a trunk. There is usually a single growing point at the top and a palm can't repair or send out laterals anywhere else. So if you damage the stem of a palm it stays damaged. If you kill or remove the growing point at the top of the stem (where the fronds emerge) you kill either the whole plant or if a clumping form, that particular stem.

So far nothing manly or womanly about all this. But when you consider the fertility and longevity of one of the best known palms, the Coconut Palm (Cocus nucifera), that's when things start to get spooky. The received wisdom is that the Coconut Palm can live to about 100 years. Fruit production (fertility) peaks around 20-40 years, tapering off from then on until it become infertile entirely about about age 70 years.

I appreciate it's a gratuitous and rather meaningless comparison but this cycle, you'll notice, is not unlike that of a female human. You could even say, as Bob Dylan might have put it, a Coconut Palm makes love just like a woman. Perhaps.
Coconut palms start life as a cluster of leaves. After about five years, the trunk forms, and the first flowers and coconuts are produced. Fruit production increases as the tree matures, peaking at between 20-40 years of age, at which point a healthy tree will produce 50 to 200 coconuts per year, depending on the cultivar. After that, the amount of coconuts produced by a single palm tree gradually diminishes, dropping off entirely around age 70. Barring diseases or other health concerns, the tree may live to see 100 years or more.

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Let me end briefly with the fruit of the palm's labour, coconuts. The coconut we consume is a large seed extracted from a fibrous case. When intact, the fruit of the Coconut Palm travels around the world on the surface of the ocean and in boats, starting somewhere in East Asia and ending up in 89 countries throughout the tropics.

It has been shown that wind and water can push the fruit along at around 40 kilometes a day, meaning it would take seven months (about 210 days) to travel from one side of the Pacific to the other. Not too far shy of the 9-month human pregnancy. Sadly for the windy-floaty hypothesis, coconuts not only can't stay buoyant for this long but the seawater they take in kills the seed within the first 110 days.

They could island jump, perhaps, but it's considered more likely Coconut Palms traveled the word thanks to humans - men and women - who found the coconut a highly portable source of food and water. These days you find Coconut Palms growing where you find humans (or evidence of where they once were).

With more more than 12 million hectares of Coconut Palms grown today, there is one hectare for every woman in Australia. Now that's a frivolous fact.

Thanks to Neville Walsh for suggesting this topic. The coloured drawing and seed germinating on the beach are from Wikipedia. The yellow kayak is mine, being paddled on the western edge of the Pacific, and the family with the coconut also mine, on the edge of Dunk Island in 2001.


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