Traditional Pacific islanders methods for selecting palms and seednuts

By R. Bourdeix, in construction

Most coconut growers have the practical experience of harvesting seednuts on a coconut palm selected for a specific purpose (high yield, sweet coconut water, sweet husk) and get different characteristics on the progeny; but they sometimes do not know why. This occurs because they choose the mother palm but, as the Tall-type coconut palms are mainly allogamous, the pollen comes mainly from an unknown male parent that transmits unwanted characteristics to his progeny. To better understand this topic, please read first the section devoted to the understanding of coconut reproductive biology

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French Polynesia
By Roland Bourdeix, Vincent Johnson, S. Valerie Saena Tuia, Jean Kape, and Serge Planes

Among traditional knowledge, French Polynesians classify coconut and coconuts palms as female and male according to four distinct classification systems. These four female/male Polynesian classifications do not fit with the “botanic reality” of scientists who classify all coconut palms as both male and female. Nevertheless, these methods seem efficient in the sense that they allow people to select better coconut palms. 

two female/male descriptive groupings are linked to the way of fruits germinate; one grouping is linked to the shape of the fruits; and the last one is linked to the general aspect of the palm. “Females” are always preferred to “males” as planting material. The expert opinion is that the three first groupings could be extensively used for selection in most of Pacific islands. The fourth grouping, based on the shape of the fruit, seems more specific to the Tall varieties found only in some islands of French Polynesia.

The first classification is linked to the way the sprout emerges from the husk when germinating (Fig. 1). If the sprout emerges from the place originally occupied by the peduncle, the fruit is called “female”. If the sprout emerges from elsewhere, the fruit is called “male”. Our first observation tends to indicates that the fruits germinating as “female” have a thinner husk and a bigger coconut inside, so the sprout can easily emerge through the husk at the peduncle level. This could be checked more precisely by conducting a scientific experiment comparing the size and composition of these “female” and “male” fruits after growing them in a nursery. This cannot be applied to varieties like Niu afa in Samoa, Niu kafa in  Tonga or Magi magi in Fiji.

Figure 1. First female/male classification for coconuts:
the way the sprouts emerge from the husk when germinating. Left: female; right: male
The second characterisation occurs when seedlings are aged from one to two months old in the nursery (Fig. 3). The seedlings having large, wide and oblong first leaves are said to be “female”. The seedlings with long and narrow first leaves are said to be “male”. The variation in leaf-shapes could originate from genetic differences between the seedlings. The coconut palm has an intermediate reproductive system. Most of the fruits come from the crossing between two coconut palms. Some of the fruits come from self pollination of the mother palm, and as there is an inbreeding depression, the resulting coconut palms produce 20 to 30% less than average. By selecting “female”, Polynesians may remove the seedlings originating from self-pollination. This could be checked by conducting a genetic experiment comparing the DNA structure of “female” and “male” seedlings after growing them in a nursery.
Figure 2. Third female/male representation
of the coconuts. Left: female; right: male.
The third classification as female/male deals with the general aspect of the adult coconut palms. A fecund and productive palm, producing many coconuts is called “female”. Palms producing few or no coconuts are called “male”.

The fourth classification is linked to the shape of the distal part of coconut husk (Fig. 1). If pointed with a small nipple, Polynesians will classify the fruit as “male”. If the 3 protuberances terminate by a concavity, the fruit will be called “female”. Three informants from different islands told that it is much easier to remove the husk from these “female” fruits than from these “male” fruits. During the during traditional Polynesians festivals, competitions were organized for the speediness of removing the husk from the coconut. In Aratika, we met a winner of these competitions. He told us that he won because it was able to select these ‘female’ coconuts in the heap of fruits available to participants. He also told us that the rule of these competitions was recently modified. Nowadays participants are no more selecting the fruits for removing the husk. Each of them receives a separate batch of coconut randomly selected.
Figure 3. First female/male classification of the coconuts:
 shape of the distal part of coconut husk. Left: female; right: male.

This study needs to be complemented by further genetic experiments that will qualify and quantify precisely the efficiency and efficacy of Polynesian selection criteria. Commitment from Polynesian institutions and associated budgets will be needed for conducting these additional studies.

In the Pacific region, the technical knowledge of coconut farmers regarding coconut biology remains weak. For instance, in French Polynesia, among 93 coconut farmers and growers interviewed in 10 islands, 80% of them did not know that the inflorescence of a coconut palm have both female and male flowers. This may originate from an incompatibility between the traditional female/male representations and the botanical knowledge. Anyway, the situation is quite similar at international level even for those not using such female/male typology.

Cook Islands
By R. Bourdeix and V. Mataora
Here under is a short movie on a farmer's method for planting coconut in Atiu Island, Cook archipelago. this movie seems important for two main reasons:
  1. This is the first documented case in Polynesia where a farmer plant many coconut palms and remove the baddest. I found that most pacific farmers are generally very conservative and, once a coconut palm is planted, they keep it for a long time, be it a good or a bad producer. Jokingly, we could say that most of these farmers treat coconut palms as members of their families. This movie demonstrates that I was wrong and that, at least in some cases, farmers are applying the technique that is recommended in our website: to plant more coconut palms and to remove those which are not producing well.
  2. We were surprised to see that this farmer is applying the criteria for selecting coconut fruits similar than the one developed in the method proposed here.There is a scene where the farmer is discarding the biggest fruits and keep only the one with thin husk and big coconut inside. So our method is well connected to some traditional practices, here in Atiu, Cook Islands. It's pleasant and reassuring, because we did not know the link with traditional practice at the time when we developed this method.

By R. Bourdeix and Ieete Timea

Here under is a short movie about planting technique made in Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati islands.