A coconut impostor unmasked

Are you one of those that gets upset when a film-maker, say, tries to get one part of the world to stand in for another without giving a thought to the possibility that the respective floras might be entirely different? I’m afraid I am, and many a movie supposedly set in Africa, for example, has been spoiled for me when I realized, by looking at the plants, that it was filmed in Hawaii or Costa Rica.

Roland Bourdeix has the same problem, if the recent exchange on the Cococnut Google Group is anything to go by.

Roland received the following postcard from Guadeloupe.

Fair enough for most people, but being the coconut expert he is, Roland immediately realized that the photograph depicted Tahiti Red Dwarf (also called Rangiroa Red Dwarf or Haari Papua). Problem is, that variety is not recorded from Guadeloupe. So, either it has been very recently introduced, or, more probably, according to Roland, the postcard company simply used a picture of a coconut from another country, perhaps French Polynesia, and passed it off as being from Guadeloupe. And nearly got away with it…

6 Replies to “A coconut impostor unmasked”

  1. A major problem being a botanist. Incongruous species in movies shot off location completely destroy the mood. The right species in the right place on the other hand set the scene, as they say.

  2. Or is the Rangiroa Red Dwarf the impostor? Its local name “haari papua” implies it came from Papua and in 1964 it was on record that “all dwarfs on this atoll originated from a single palm introduced 30 years ago”. In 1938 an article in the New Guinea Agricultural Gazette noted the presence of a red-fruited dwarf in parts of New Guinea and in Papua and considered that they might have been brought there by natives from the Dutch-controlled western region of New Guinea (i.e. Indonesia) and 200 years earlier (1741) Rumphius described the red dwarf in Amboin (Indonesia) under the name “kalapa raja”. In 1906 this was transliterated as “coco sultan” in the Comoros and Madagascar and, today, as king coconut in Sri Lanka. It is “kitamli” in Pemba (Zanzibar, Tanzania) from where it was taken to the Philippines in 1912 and probably to Cameroon (West Africa) around the same time. All these locations are on record but how many movements have gone unrecorded? Have the authorities in Guadeloupe or Tahiti or Cameroon (all francophone) kept any records? Coconuts, like people, are cosmopolitan; free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world.

  3. Hugh – thanks for this story in a nutshell. It makes me wonder if there would be any interest in setting up a system of recording plant names and name usages that encompasses all kinds of usage: formal botanical, local vernacular, standard vernacular, market trade, formal cultivar, culinary, literary, and maybe other kinds of usage. The idea would be to embrace the fact that names have often overlapping usages, and to make simple, open system for adding information to an initial database of recorded names. For the truly ancient and cosmopolitan crops such as coconut and banana and taro, we seem to have just a small fraction of names and usages recorded, across all the languages the plants have encountered.

    1. I had a vague recollection that Melbourne University had something like that, so I went looking and found this but it seems to be moribund and could be so much more.

      There’s a copyright on that site (possibly not the data it contains) and your suggestion, Peter, raises a mass of questions regarding the structure (if any — it could just be a wiki) of such a system. We could certainly think about hosting such a system here, although it would need masses of help both to populate it and then to keep it growing.

  4. The idea of setting up a catalogue of coconut characteristics was recently suggested in the Coconut Knowledge Network group discussion and this would also be a list of names, as suggested by Peter, because the early (pre-Linnaean) names were usually simple descriptions of obvious characteristics like fruit size or colour. Coconut literature contains many lists of names/characteristics – from Rumphius in 1741 to Bourdeix et al in 2010 – and Jeremy’s suggestion of a wiki would be a convenient way to enable existing lists to be collated and augmented.

  5. Good job unmasking this one. Now if we could only unmask all of those false forests in the movies! I agree completely.

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