Lagoons, coral atolls and coconut palm dispersal (Viewpoint)

The controversial origin of the coconut

So where do coconuts originate from – America or Asia?

Lagoons, coral atolls and coconut palm dispersal (Viewpoint)
Lagoons, coral atolls and coconut palm dispersal (Viewpoint)

When coconut palms are the subject of a scientific report, the introductory paragraphs can mention only a few of the multiple uses that make this pan-tropical crop invaluable to thousands of smallholder farmers. A comment on the beauty and familiar appearance of coconut palms is hard to resist, and may be illustrated by a picture showing the graceful stems, supporting a crown of fronds, curving over a tropical lagoon, into which the ripe fruit can fall and float. The difficulty of dealing with a long-lived monocotyledon of unknown origin that cannot be vegetatively propagated may also be mentioned.

The original home of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, and the extent of its natural dispersal are not known. Proponents of a South American origin must explain why it is not indigenous there and why it shows greatest diversity in southern Asia. Conversely, proponents of an Asian origin must explain why there are no Asian Cocoseae and why the closest botanical relative to Cocos is in South America. Both hypotheses share the common problems of how, when, where and in what directions long-distance dispersal occurred.


Harries, H.C., & Clement, C.R. (2013) Long-distance dispersal of the coconut palm by migration within the coral atoll ecosystem. Annals of Botany, 113 (4): 565-570. doi: 10.1093/aob/mct293


AJ Cann

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

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