Identifying the Diversity of Native Coconuts in Australia

native coconut


THERE is a widespread belief that coconut palms are not native to Australia and that they were introduced by mariners and the Queensland Acclimatisation Society.

The reasons given for why coconut palms are not native are that there were no Aboriginal words for ‘coconut’ and that the first mariners starting from Captain Cook in 1770 did not find coconuts.

A search of dictionaries, historical and other papers reveals that traditional owners had multiple words for ‘coconut’, specific names for groves, stated that coconuts had always been in Australia, owned trees, and used them for food, artifacts and ceremony. The Indigenous knowledge, linguistics and oral history about coconuts is evidence that they grew in Australia prior to European colonisation in 1788.

A search of reports of the early European sea captains and botanists shows that they regularly found evidence of coconuts including green and fresh nuts. Mature coconut palms were found from 1848 onwards. This information has been published in a scientific journal and reprinted by DouglasNews.Network. Click here to view.

Research on the evolution of coconut fossils shows that their predecessors were Gondwanan in origin from the time when India, Australia and New Zealand were connected to Antartica as part of the super continent of Gondwana. The only fossil of the coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) was found in Australia. Fossils of closely related species have been found in India and New Zealand. Based on the current fossil evidence it is possible that the coconut evolved in Australia and then spread throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Researching the Introduction of Coconuts

The claims that all early coconuts in Australia were introduced by sailors and the Queensland Acclimatisation Society has been researched. The minutes of the meeting of the Queensland Acclimatisation Society held on November 2, 1869 record that the introduction of coconuts into Queensland had not produced any fruiting trees and was a failure.

At the meeting, the Society proposed to run experiments with amateurs to trial how to grow coconuts successfully, They could then start establishing plantations in Queensland with nuts introduced from commercial plantations from Asia and/or the South Pacific. 

Then Governor of Queensland, Colonel Samuel Wensley Blackall, stated at the meeting that there were coconut palms that had established on the Queensland mainland, that had drifted in from indigenous plants from the islands to the north.

“His Excellency said he understood that in the islands to the north of Queensland the coconut grew as an indigenous plant, and that seeds from the islands had been washed to the mainland, and had grown there.”

Governor of Queensland (1868-1871), Colonel Samuel Wensley Blackall

This means that there is no evidence that any of the introduced coconut palms were bearing nuts by the end of 1869 and the trees and nuts documented before then and around the 1870s were Indigenous and, by definition, are native to Australia. Significantly, in 1869, the head of the Queensland Government acknowledged that there were established coconut palms on the mainland that were self sown and not introduced by European colonists.

Traditional Owners and the Coconut

Several authoritative resources concerning coconuts in Australia acknowledge that nut were constantly drifting to Australia  from nearby islands. However, they state that the traditional owners ate all the drift nuts and young palms and this prevented them from growing on the mainland; this is why there were no coconut palms growing on the mainland prior to their introduction.

There is extensive evidence of the drift nuts being eaten. Most of the early mariners reported coconuts shells and husks that had been opened and consumed. For instance, Bligh found large numbers when he landed on Restoration Island, Queensland, on May 28, 1789 after a marathon journey in a small boat from near Tahiti because of the mutiny on the Bounty.

He wrote: “Many pieces, of cocoa-nut shells and husk were found about the shore..” The numerous reports of husks, shells and nuts by early mariners show that drift nuts were not rare events, and that they were abundant in some instances.

It is a data free assumption to state that the traditional owners ate all the drift nuts and prevented them from growing. There is a good body of evidence that the traditional owners owned trees and harvested the nuts along more than 1000 kilometres of coastline in eastern Queensland.

Hynes and Chase wrote that the Temple Bay and Lockhart River traditional owners stated that they owned coconut palms. The Temple Bay traditional owners planted the coconuts surplus to the needs of feeding their children above the drift line. Tucker stated that the Lockhart River traditional owners harvested the nuts from the local trees that they owned.

The Hershbergers working in partnership with Kuku Yalanji elders recorded the names of coconut groves on the Bloomfield River and Emmagen Creek that belonged to the traditional owners.

A green coconut that had been freshly tapped for its water that was reported by King in 1819 at Cape Cleveland, near Townsville, was found in a traditional owner’s village. The tree that it came from must have been close by. The fact that it had been tapped for its water showed that the traditional owners knew about harvesting the green nuts from the coconut for the water, and this is a much more substantial knowledge than just consuming drift nuts. Green nuts quickly go brown, so this nut was not a drift nut.

A coconut tree at Carawal, near Yeppoon, that the professional botanical collector, Anthelme Thozet, sent fruit and leaves from to Baron von Mueller at the Victorian Botanical Gardens in 1864 was growing in a traditional owner’s village.

On April 19, 1871 Arthur Neame, one of the first settlers on the Herbert District, found a tall bearing coconut palm on the beach near the mouth of the Herbert River near present day Lucinda. He stated that “..  it had nearly 100 nuts growing quite high up, I brought down three with a shot from my revolver but they were not nearly fit for use, the natives pick them as soon as they can make any use of them.” This shows that the traditional owners climbed the coconut palm and harvested the green nuts.

George Elphingstone Dalrymple found a coconut palm near South Mission Beach on September 29, 1873. “Inside Tam O’Shanter Point is the long sandy beach of Kennedy Bay; a small scrub-shaded creek enters the N.E. corner of the bay, and close to it is a fine young cocoanut tree of about fourteen feet in height, but without fruit.” It did not have fruit because they were harvested by the traditional owners.

E.J. Banfield in Diary of a Beachcomber wrote: “It grew to a great tree…” and that the traditional owners climbed the tree to regularly harvest and consume the coconuts.

Banfield reported that this tree was cut down by a settler in the 1880s, to get the nuts.  He wrote that the traditional owners were so angry about losing their valuable tree that they killed him for doing it. This adds weight to body of evidence that the traditional owners owned individual coconut palms and placed great value on them as reported by Hynes and Chase, the Hershbergers and Tucker.

Native Coconut Palms were not Recorded by Government

Even though the Governor of Queensland in 1869 stated that there were native coconuts growing in the colony, they were not officially recorded, were ignored and then forgotten. The Queensland Herbarium records show that they only started collecting coconut specimens in 1942 with most of its current collection dating from the late twentieth century and this century. They have a record of the coconut palm collected by Anthelme Thozet in 1864, from the Victorian Herbarium, however they do not have a date on it. It is surprising that they have no herbarium records of the Russell Island coconuts. Walter Hill, the Queensland colonial botanist and superintendent of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, visited them three times in 1873 and wrote a report about them addressed to the Queensland Government. He would have collected herbarium specimens and sent them to the herbariums in Victoria and Kew in London, as he did with other specimens he collected. This grove of coconuts does not exist anymore due to neglect and vandalism.

The evidence is emerging that native coconut palms were regularly found along the tropical Australian coast, however they were rarely documented.  It is only now, more than 150 years later, that historical research is finding some of them. Much of the information is probably lost, however continued research will find more examples. Below are images of coconuts that have been uncovered based on historical records.

A photograph of Somerset in 1866, at the top of Cape York, two years after its settlement showing two mature coconut palms growing on the littoral edge of the beach.
A photograph of Somerset in 1866, at the top of Cape York, two years after its settlement showing two mature coconut palms growing on the littoral edge of the beach. One near the centre of the beach, and the other at the northern end partially obscured by the headland. It looks like other coconut palms are growing along the base of the headland, however they cannot be viewed clearly.
Image Courtesy / John Oxley Library

Drawing of Somerset in 1866 showing native coconut palms.
Drawing of Somerset in 1866, the same year as the above photograph. It shows the same mature coconuts as the photograph and others growing behind the headland on littoral zone of the beach.
Image Credit / Google Images

Port Essington in the top end of the Northern Territory. Note the mature coconut palms in the background on the right hand side.
Port Essington in the top end of the Northern Territory. Note the mature coconut palms in the background on the right hand side. The artist, Louis Le Breton, drew this in 1839, the year the settlement was constructed, so the mature coconut palms are examples of a native species.
Image Credit / Google Images

The report of the November 1869, meeting of Queensland Acclimatisation Society stated that their were were bearing coconut palms at Port Essington in the Northern Territory. Port Essington was settled in 1839 and abandoned in 1849, so this information must have come during this period.

The French natural history artist, Louis Le Breton, drew a picture of Port Essinton in 1839, the year the settlement was constructed that showed the mature coconut palms in the background at the beach end of the settlement.

Le Breton showed great accuracy with Pandanus spiralis in the foreground and eucalyptus trees in the background. The shape of the crown and large size of the upright fronds of the palms compared to the buildings are consistent with the crowns of niu kafa coconut palms. They are different in form compared to significantly smaller crowns and the curved weeping fronds of Hydriastele ramsayi and Carpentaria acuminata, two species palms that grow in the area. The view is consistent with the coconut palms growing on the littoral edge of the beach, a habitat that is not favoured by H. ramsayi and C. acuminata,  Alan Cunningham, the botanist on King’s surveys on the Mermaid wrote on April 7, 1818, that he planted a fresh coconut he found on South Goulburn Island on North Goulburn Island, which are nearby.  This is further evidence of coconuts in the region.

A grove of mature nui kafa coconut palms on Four Mile Beach in 1908.
A grove of mature nui kafa coconut palms on Four Mile Beach in 1908. The size of the taller trees, which are significantly taller than the buildings, indicate that this grove may been naturally growing before the settlement of Port Douglas.
Image Courtesy / Douglas Shire Historical Society

Above is a picture of a grove of mature coconut palms on Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas in 1908. The grove may be older than the settlement of Port Douglas that was founded in 1877. The upright shape of the crowns is consistent with the native niu kafa, rather than the full circular crown of the introduced niu vai varieties. Niu vai palms were not extensively introduced into Queensland until the 1890s and these palms are clearly more than 18 years old. They could be more than 15 metres tall and 60 to 100 years old. It looks like Macrossan Street was constructed through the original grove as the pictures shows mature palms on both sides of the road. The area was known as Coconut Grove which is still used by one development there today.  Niu kafa type trees can still be found along the foreshore of Four Mile Beach and these may be descendants of this original grove.

Identifying Native Australian Coconut Species

The classification of coconut phenotypes is complex and still evolving as more research is published. A simple analysis is sufficient for this article. Coconuts are divided into Indo-Pacific and Indo-Atlantic forms. The Indo-Pacific form is divided into two main phenotypes of coconuts based on clear morphological characteristics — niu kafa and niu vai. There are dwarf and tall forms. Dwarf coconuts were only introduced into Australia in the 1970s and will not be examined in this article whose focus is native coconuts and the early introductions. There is evidence of native dwarf varieties and these can be distinguished from the introduced dwarf cultivars as they can easily be identified.

The niu kafa coconut on the left is long with a three-sided angular shape. Nui vai on the right is large and round.
The niu kafa type on the left is long with a three-sided angular shape. Nui vai on the right is large and round. The wild-type niu kafa is well adapted for spending many months at sea crossing oceans to colonise new lands because of its thicker husk with three-sided angular shape giving it a keel that can dig a trench into the sand so it can plant itself.  On the other hand niu vai is not as well suited for long distance drifting due to its thinner husk. Its spread has been done primarily by humans who introduced it to new areas for cultivation because of its superior nut qualities.
Image Credit / André Leu

Their Introduction

The coconuts that were imported by the Queensland Acclimatisation Society came from commercial plantations from Asia and the South Pacific. These plantations are based on the large round niu vai nuts due to the superior levels of copra and oil production.

The limited earlier plantings up to 1870 had failed to produce bearing palms. The large scale planting of these palms did not start until the 1890s, especially a program by the Queensland Government to plant coconut palms on islands and in aboriginal missions. The records of the plantings of coconuts along the islands and coast in the 1890s show that most of them did not survive as they were neglected and left to look after themselves. They were burnt out and eaten by the traditional owners and bêche-de-mer fishers.  Young palms were consumed by herds of goats that existed on the islands and the mainland that defoliated many areas of their native vegetation. Some of the smaller plantations such as lots of 300 nuts sent to Bloomfield, McIvor River and Mapoon Missions lasted a few years longer, however these have now vanished.  There were several larger commercial plantations such as the Jardine plantation at Somerset, and plantations at Wonga Beach and Bramston Beach. All of these plantations went out of business in the 1920s because the cost of labour in Australia made them uncompetitive compared to the large commercial plantations in Asia and the South Pacific These plantations do do not exist today, however descendants of their introduced niu vai trees exist.

Unfortunately because there was no interest in conserving or propagating the native Australian coconuts it is difficult to know if niu vai types were growing wild in Australia prior to 1788. Nui vai types were growing in the Torres Strait Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and so could easily drift to mainland Australia.

Niu vai were developed through thousands of years of selection of improved coconut varieties from the wild-type niu kafa. They were taken, by Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian seafarers, along with other domestic plants and animals such as bananas, breadfruit, taro, chickens and pigs with them on their migrations as they colonised the Pacific Islands. The paleo-archeological records show increases in coconut pollen on the islands with the arrival of these cultures, and this would be due to the cultivation of coconuts increasing the numbers on the islands. The Polynesians arrived over 1,000 years ago with niu vai. The cultivated niu vai started to replace the wild type niu kafa on many Pacific Islands which had drifted there thousands of years earlier. Niu vai could have been regularly drifting to Australia for more than 1000 years and some of them may have self sown.

It is a reasonable assumption that most niu vai are introduced, however there may be native Australian types that had drifted in from the Pacific.

Native wild-type niu kafa and  niu vai coconut palms
Native wild-type niu kafa types and a niu vai intermediate type that have drifted onto Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas. The smaller nui kafa nuts were not selected for cultivation by the Queensland Acclimatisation Society as they were unsuitable for commercial copra and oil production due to the small kernels that they produce. These smaller nut types are unique Australian phenotypes types that still grow along the foreshore in Queensland. Collections show that there is a wide diversity of these phenotypes and the palms need to preserved in their natural ecosystems, littoral forests. These palms are part of the Australia’s biodiversity heritage, and destroying them means the extinction of biodiversity that is unique to Australia.
Image Credit / André Leu

The record of the nuts from the tree found at Carrawal show that they were niu kafa. The shape of the crown of the Russell Island trees show a form consistent with niu kafa. It would be reasonable to assume that the niu kafa types, especially the smaller wild-type nuts are native. These nuts have significantly inferior levels of copra and oil recovery and would not be introduced for commercial plantations.

Wonga Beach, north of Port Douglas, is a good example illustrating the effect of introduced nuts on the native varieties. The majority of coconuts on the beach foreshore adjacent to the old plantation are nui vai and most likely are descendants of the original plantation trees. Further from the beach, at Rocky Point, there is a diversity of nuts including wild-type niu kafa and niu kafa intermediate forms. There are also other phenotypes such as tall trees with dwarf, even miniature nuts. The same diversity can be found on Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, only a few kilometres away across the bay. These smaller nut types would not have been introduced for plantations as they have no commercial value.

The majority of coconut palms growing on the littoral edge foreshores in Australia do not have the large round form of the introduced niu vai. The impact of their introduction has not been as extensive as assumed in many documents. Most  of these palms fall into the intermediate category. Some of these are the result of the natural evolution of coconuts. Niu vai came from niu kafa through natural improvements. Cultures that cultivated coconuts selected the larger nuts and over time, through constant selection of the largest nuts, the current cultivars of niu vai became the dominant cultivated coconuts. The same has been done with fruits, vegetable and grains and most of our cultivated food crops. They were the result of selecting the best varieties over thousands of years  from the original wild types. The small sour crab apple became the large juicy apple through this process.

The coconut  on the bottom feft is a niu kafa nut. At the bottom right is a niu vai nut.
The coconut on the bottom feft is a niu kafa nut. At the bottom right is a niu vai nut. The nuts in the middle are examples of intermediate forms. The nuts at the top of the photo are small and miniature nuts that grow on tall trees and are most likely examples of wild-types. Apart from the large round niu vai, these types of nuts would not have been introduced for copra and oil production and are examples of native Australian phenotypes, Image Credit / André Leu

Many niu kafa intermediate varieties are a result of these natural changes that eventually led to niu vai. They are not hybrids with niu via and are naturally occuring partial changes to the wild-type form. Some intermediate varieties are the result of cross pollination between niu vai and niu kafa. Most of these natural hybrids would have native Australian niu kafa parentage. As the majority of coconut palms growing along the littoral edge are intermediate forms, it is reasonable to assume that they have genetics of native Australian origin.

A comprehensive DNA analysis needs to done on the coconuts in Australia and compared with Asian and Pacific phenotypes to fully clarify the diversity of Australian coconuts and their relationships with other nuts in the Indo-Pacific region.

Self sown coconut palms on the littoral edge in Far North Queensland
Self sown palms on the littoral edge in Far North Queensland. The palm in the front centre is a wild-type niu kafa, the palm on the left is a niu kafa intermediate-type and the palm with the larger fronds in the middle is a niu vai type.  The niu vai type clearly has larger fronds and a fuller crown than the other palms in the picture. Niu kafa palms tend to have smaller crowns with less fronds than the intermediate and niu vai types. The coconut palms in the historical pictures of Russell Island, Port Essington, Somerset and Port Douglas have the crown forms of niu kafa types.
Image Credit/ André Leu
The full dense circular crown of a niu vai coconut palms when not touching other palms.
The full dense circular crown of a niu vai coconut phenotype when not touching other palms. Niu vai and many intermediate types have full circular crowns with numerous fronds.
Image Credit / André Leu
The semi-upright form of  the crown of a niu kafa coconut when not touching other palms.
The semi-upright form of  the crown of a niu kafa coconut phenotype when not touching other palms. It does not have the full dense circular crown and tends to have a more upright crown shape, has fewer fronds that are more openly spaced and they are smaller in length than niu vai. Intermediate types have a diversity of crown shapes that range from the wild-type niu kafa to the niu vai forms.
Image Credit / André Leu
Russell Island Palm
Russell Island 1848
Port Douglas historical coconut palm
Port Douglas, 1908, shows the crowns of two palms, both of which have niu kafa forms.
Port Essington coconut palm
Port Essington 1839

The crown shapes of these historical palms from Russell Island, Port Essington and Port Douglas show niu kafa characteristics rather than niu vai characteristics.

One thing is certain. Australia has a massive diversity of coconut phenotypes, many of which are unique to Australia. The current culling programs could be resulting in the extinction of unique Australian coconuts. This is based on the poorly researched belief that coconuts were not in Australia before the arrival of European colonists and that all coconuts have been introduced since then. The Russell Island groves no longer exist and we have lost these unique native Australian coconuts forever. They are extinct.

We need to document these unique Australian phenotypes and preserve them in situ in their natural ecosystems; the beach edge of littoral forests. The first part of this process is to stop the culling of coconuts to prevent the extinction of unique Australian biodiversity.

Featured Image Credit : Drawing of coconut palms on Russell Island in 1848 by Brierly

ABOUT THE AUTHOR / André Leu is the International Director of Regeneration International, a global NGO that promotes food, farming and land use systems that regenerate and stabilise eco systems, climate systems, the health of the planet and people. He, along with the other founders of Regeneration International, started the world wide regenerative farming movement. André is the Author of the ‘Myths of Safe Pesticides’ and ‘Poisoning our Children’. He is the co-author with Dr Vandana Shiva of ‘Biodiversity, Agroecology, Regenerative Organic Agriculture – Sustainable Solutions for Hunger, Poverty and Climate Change’. André first came to the Douglas Shire in 1971 and has, with his wife Julia, an organic tropical fruit farm in Lower Daintree.

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[…] Identifying the Diversity of Native Coconuts in Australia […]

Idris Alkamraikhi
2 years ago

Thor Heyerdahl, in his account of the Kon Tiki expedition noted that all the coconuts that were below deck, some of which were used for buoyancy, had rotted during the 8,000 kilometre voyage across the Pacific Ocean. His conclusion was that as those on deck survived the voyage, the coconut was spread around the shores of the Pacific and Indian Oceans by sailors rather than ocean currents. Polynesian sailors Criss crossed the Pacific, populating the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand and Tahiti. Over ten thousand years ago. There is also increasing evidence that Formosans, the original inhabitants of Taiwan were also seafarers and traded all around the China Sea to India, and the South Pacific.
Without refrigeration and lacking preservatives, the coconut must be regarded as one of the longer lasting sources of fluids and nutrients.

Ned Landers
2 years ago

about time, and thanks, Andre A tropical island without coconuts is like a politician without principles. Sure, there are many and wouldn’t it great if we looked after our native plants and indigenous knowledge.