Cultivating our tropical past

Written by      

Kennedy Warne

Gardeners with a keen sense of history can now forge a botanical link with a plant which hasn’t been seen on these shores for millions of years.

A species of Ecuadorian coconut has been success­fully propagated here by Auckland nurseryman and South American plant enthusiast Dick Endt. Its seeds bear a striking resem­blance to fossilised New Zealand coconuts dating from 10-45 million years ago.

During much of the past 65 million years—the Tertiary period—New Zealand’s climate was significantly wanner than it is today. Reef corals flour­ished in northern waters and coconut palms grew over much of the country as mean annual temperatures hovered between 20 and 25°C. (Auckland’s mean annual temperature today is 15°.)

Evidence that a more subtropical New Zealand once supported coconuts takes the form of fossil coconuts which are periodically washed up on Coopers Beach, near Mangonui, after being eroded from lignite and sandstone reefs that lie just offshore. The nuts were first reported in the scien­tific literature in 1926, and have since been found not just in Northland but in inland sites in South Canterbury, Hawkes Bay and Gisborne. They are about the size of walnuts, but have been flattened by long burial in the marine sediments where they lodged so many million years ago. Carbonisation has rendered them black and as hard as bullets.

Dick Endt brought seeds of the Andean coconut, Parajubaea cocoides, back to New Zealand after a South American collecting foray in the mid 1970s (see “Lost Crops of the Incas,” New Zealand Geographic, Issue 10) and has been growing the palms at his Oratia nursery ever since.

He says they grow vigorously in the mild West Auckland climate, the largest having reached a height of five metres. In Ecuador and southern Colombia the tallest grow to a height of 20 metres, but the palms occur naturally only at elevations of 2500-3000 metres above sea level. At that altitude the climate approximates that of northern New Zealand.

A distinctive feature of the mountain coconut is that when young the trunk is densely covered in fibrous matting. This protective tomentum falls away as the palm matures.

The coconuts themselves form in bunches of several dozen, and a single palm may bear hundreds. Like the traditional coconut, the  seed is enclosed within a fibrous husk. The edible part—the endosperm—is about the size of a macadamia nut, and, says Endt, is just as tasty.

From the similarity of the nuts, Endt believes that the long-extinct New Zealand coconut (Cocos zeylandica) might have had a similar appearance to its Andean cousin. Ecuador shares other plant types with New Zealand, dating from the period when South America, New Zealand and Antarctica were part of the great landmass Gondwana. Had New Zealand not drifted so far south during the break­up of the supercontinent, we might be eating native coconuts today.

Be that as it may, Endt’s mountain coconut (available for $50-275 from Landsendt) make an attractive and intriguing substitute.

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