- Known for its various uses, there are many Different Types of Coconuts that you are not aware of! Here are some of the popular varieties you should know!
- What is a Coconut?
- Types of Coconuts
- Brown Vs. Green Coconuts
- Different Types of Coconuts
- The Evolution of Coconuts
- Coconut- A Natural Healing Wonder
- Coconut Nutritional Facts Chart
- Main Coconut Varieties
- Tall Coconut Varieties
- Dwarf Coconut Varieties
- Hybrid Coconut Varieties
- Sub-Grouped Coconut Varieties
- ‘A coconut can fall and hit you on the head, and if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead’
- ‘The good doctor calculated that the annual death toll was around 150 people a year’
- The truth about falling coconuts
Known for its various uses, there are many Different Types of Coconuts that you are not aware of! Here are some of the popular varieties you should know!
Coconuts are one of the most versatile food sources and are also considered as ‘Super Food’ thanks to the numerous health benefits they offer! Here are different Types of Coconuts you might not have heard about!
What is a Coconut?
Coconut is a one-seeded fruit of a tropical tree- Cocos Nucifera. It belongs to the Arecaceae family and grows in a humid and warm climate. This palm tree is native to Malasia and found in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and some pacific islands.
The fruit consists of three layers: endocarp, exocarp, and mesocarp. Exocarp is the green and smooth, outermost layer. Mesocarp is the middle fleshy layer of the coconut; the endocarp is the hard and woody layer surrounding the seed.
To know whether it is a fruit or a nut, Click here!
Types of Coconuts
There are mainly two types of Coconuts trees–tall and dwarf. The tall grows up to 50-90 feet and starts bearing fruits after 7-10 years. Whereas, the dwarf grows up to 20-60 feet and begins fruiting after 4-5 years. Dwarf varieties have an average life span of 40-50 years, while tall varieties live up to 90-100 years. Also, the tall varieties are cross-pollinated, and dwarf ones are self-pollinated.
There are some hybrid varieties of coconuts as well, combining features of both. Tall x Dwarf (TxD), Dwarf x Tall (DxT) are two main hybrids.
Note: Dwarf coconut varieties are better than taller ones, as you can easily maintain them due to their small size.
Brown Vs. Green Coconuts
Both green coconuts and brown coconuts are the same, but the difference lies in their age. Green ones are young, not completely ripened, whereas brown husk coconuts are fully mature, containing less water comparatively. The flesh of Brown coconuts are used in cooking and can be eaten raw as well. Whereas, the green coconuts are mainly used for their flavorful water, used either for drinking or making binakol. The coconut oil extracted from the dried or brown coconuts is used for frying and cooking purposes.
Fun Fact: Coconuts also come in Orange color. The king coconut is orange due to the carotenoid compound.
Different Types of Coconuts
1. West Coast Tall Coconut
This tall coconut tree bears fruit in 6-7 years and produces around 60-80 coconuts per palm, each year. It is drought-tolerant, and the color of the fruits varies from green to yellow and orange to brown.
2. East Coast Tall Coconut
East coast tall produces around 60-70 coconuts on each palm every year and takes 6-8 years to yield fruits. This tall coconut tree needs well-drained, loamy soil to thrive.
3. Maypan Coconut
Hybrid of Malayan and Panama; Maypan is a cold-hardy variety, producing medium to large-sized coconuts. Growing up to 20-meters, this variety is also resistant to lethal yellowing disease.
4. Tiptur Tall Coconut
Leathery fronds of tiptur tree produce 6-12 inches long fruits. It starts bearing fruits in 6-7 years from the planting and produces 70-80 coconuts on each palm, every year. It is one of the best coconut tree variety to grow!
5. Orange Dwarf Coconut
Producing fruits in 3-4 years, this dwarf variety can yield around 50-70 drupes per palm each year. Each crown of this tree consists of 20-28 leaves. Avoid growing this palm tree in the wind prone areas, as it may get damaged due to strong winds.
6. Green Dwarf Coconut
This palm tree yields around 60-70 coconuts per palm and begins fruiting in 3-4 years. Its drupes are dark green and resistant to root wilt disease.
7. Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut
This palm has a yield of 50-60 coconuts on each palm per year and starts bearing fruits after 3-4 years. It is native to Indonesia and is resistant to lethal yellowing disease.
8. Fiji Dwarf Coconut
This tropical ornamental tree is popular for its long fronds and a swollen trunk base. Its unique leaf arrangement makes it different from others and has a large bulb at its lower stem. Thanks to its durable nature, it has earned the name- Tough nut.
9. King Coconut
This variety produces orange-skinned coconuts, due to the Carotenoids compound, which is found in orange nuts as well, in clusters of 15-25. It is rich in vitamins, calcium, and amino acids. Its orange husk is
10. VHC1 Coconut
Hybrid of East coast tall and Malayan green dwarf, this hybrid tree starts producing fruits after 4-years and produces around 80-100 coconuts per palm each year.
11. Macapuno Coconut
It is a dwarf plant, producing coconuts with a jelly-like flesh of sweet and nutty flavor, used in preparing beverages and desserts like pastries.
Not very long ago, coconuts were being associated with a multitude of health issues like clogged arteries, heart diseases, and increased cholesterol levels, to name a few. This greatly affected its reputation and stirred up a lot of confusion among true coconut-lovers.
However, after massive amounts of research on this incredible fruit, it made a massive comeback as one of the best ‘miracle’ foods with endless health benefits. And, for all the right reasons, too. They slowly earned their way to becoming an extremely versatile and a highly-demanded food commodity.
Nowadays, you won’t just find coconuts being used in different cuisines from all around the world, but they have also stirred up great interest in the world of beauty and skincare, as well. From magical beauty potions to delicious culinary creations, they are everywhere.
Coconuts are packed with all the essential vitamins and minerals that not only boost your physical health but also pave the way towards flawless and healthy-looking skin and hair.
Take a look at the different types of coconuts, their ultimate health benefits and their wonderful evolution throughout history all the way to the current modern times.
The coconut tree belongs to the palm tree family called the “Arecaceae” and the term “coconut” refers to the entire coconut palm including the fruit and the seed. The word coconut has stemmed from a Spanish and Portuguese word ‘coco’ which translates to “head” or “skull” in the English language. This derivation resulted from the fact that the coconut shell consists of three indentations that basically resemble human facial features.
One of the earliest mentions of coconuts was in the “One Thousand and One Nights” story of Sindbad the Sailor according to which he brought some coconuts and sold them off during his fifth voyage. There are also records of some literary evidence from the chronicles of Sri Lanka which show that coconuts were present even before the 1st Century BCE mainly in regions of South Asia.
According to the research conducted by a plant evolutionary biologist called Kenneth M. Olsen, there are two clearly differentiated origins of cultivation the coconut, the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera. This finding suggests that coconut was cultivated and bought from two locations, one from the Pacific basin and the other in the Indian Ocean basin.
Interestingly though, genetic records of the coconut from ancient times also provide evidence of it being found on the prehistoric trade routes during the colonization of the Americas. An American botanist called Orator F. Cook also hypothesized that the coconut first originated in the Americas. This hypothesis stemmed from his belief that it was the population of the American coconuts that spread throughout Europe.
Coconuts are often referred to as the “Swiss Army Knife” of the plant kingdom. This unique and interesting name is a result of it being such a versatile food commodity that serves multiple purposes. It is like a complete package that consists of highly nutritious food content, potable
water, fibrous materials inside that can be easily spun into rope and also a hard shell-exterior that can be transformed into charcoal.
However, putting all of that aside, there is a reason why it is called a “miracle food”. It is believed to be a natural healing wonder that caters to a myriad of health issues and problems.
Here are some of the top and most amazing benefits of coconuts. They are:
- Help promote weight loss
- Have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-parasite properties that help support and protect your immune system.
- Keep your skin and hair healthy and in excellent condition by preventing hair fall, fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and spots.
- Enhance your digestive system and foster a better absorption of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins in the body.
- Improve cholesterol levels in the body and reduce the risk of heart diseases and ailments.
Coconut Nutritional Facts Chart
There is a single species of the coconut plant, and Cocos nucifera (the coconut palm) is the only palm tree that produces coconuts.
However, within that single species, there are different varieties of the coconut that are further categorized into various types and groups.
Main Coconut Varieties
The tall coconut varieties are one of the most common types of the coconut palm, and two of the tall cultivars that are expansively grown are the East Coast Tall and the West Coast Tall. They live up to an average of 80-90 years and grow to an altitude of 3,000 ft., well above the sea level. These trees typically attain a height of 15-18m or even more sometimes.
The tall varieties of coconut palms thrive under different soil conditions including red loams and littoral sands. They are also fairly resistant to pests and diseases. The nut of coconuts from these trees is medium-big sized, and they often sport varying colors including shades of brown, yellow, green and orange.
These can also cross-pollinate which suggests that they end up sharing their genetic material with several other trees. This results in increased variation in terms of the characteristics of the coconut.
As the name suggests, the Dwarf coconut varieties are smaller than their tall counterparts, and they grow to an average height of 20 to 60 feet. Their average lifespan is 40-50 years, and they start bearing fruit earlier than the tall coconut varieties.
The nuts of coconuts from the dwarf palm trees are small in size and round in shape, weighing about 3 oz (85 gm). These trees are highly susceptible to drought, and they typically produce yellow, green and orange colored nuts.
Unlike the tall varieties, the dwarf ones mostly self-pollinate, which means they don’t have as many variations as the former. However, they do produce more fruit, which is normally smaller in size compared to those produced by the tall palm trees.
Hybrid Coconut Varieties
These are a cross between two morphological forms of coconut that are mainly produced through two different ways. One way includes a tall female parent and a dwarf male parent, and the other way involves using dwarf as the female parent and tall as the male parent.
The hybrid varieties exhibit early flowering and yield an excellent quality of produce, as compared to the parent varieties. They also perform exceptionally well when provided with good growing conditions including proper irrigation and nutrient management.
Sub-Grouped Coconut Varieties
Cocos nucifera (the coconut palm) is the single coconut-producing palm tree; however, several varieties of this palm are grown and cultivated in many different countries. These sub-varieties significantly vary in terms of the taste of the coconut water, the taste of the fruit and also the color. You might also find slight variations in several other genetic factors.
Some of the most common and popular of these coconut varieties include the following.
These are hybrid coconut varieties that are extremely high yielding and are best grown in tropical locations. They typically require free draining soil and require deep organic mulch in their surrounding areas in order to grow well.
This variety is believed to be the most widespread dwarf coconut in the world. It was first introduced in Malaysia between the periods of 1890-1900 by Indonesian planters. When younger, the fruits of this variety are initially pale yellow-green and once they have grown old, the color of the leaf stalk, seedling sprouts and the fruit turn to just pale yellow.
The Malayan yellow dwarf varieties are commonly grown in several countries including Thailand, Fiji, India, Brazil, and Jamaica, to name a few. They typically produce oblong and medium sized fruits that normally weigh up to 700 – 800 gm.
This coconut variety has a lifespan of 40 years, and the average plant height goes up to 5.05 m. It produces reddish yellow colored nuts that are usually round shaped. It takes about 3 -4 years before it initially begins the flowering process and is best suited for tender nit water.
The fruit of this coconut variety has both sweet-tasting water and high meat content. The average annual yield of the dwarf orange coconut is 63 palms or nuts over a span of a single year. It is able to self-pollinate, which suggests that it doesn’t have any further types or variations.
The golden Malay coconut variety is mostly grown in Bulgaria and is imported from Indonesia. These palm trees produce beautiful bronze to red colored fruit, and they are best grown outside of the tropics in sheltered and warm positions.
These are also best grown in areas with organic mulch in the surroundings, and they typically require free draining soils. Their average height goes to more than 12 meters and the plants spread, or width is typically 8 to 12 meters.
The golden Malay coconut variety starts producing fruit at an early age, and the fruits have a very ornamental golden-orange color. They also produce excellent quality drinking water and also the fruit content that is ideal for cooking purposes.
This variety of coconut originated from Jamaica and is typically referred to as a “sturdy coconut”. The Maypan coconut belongs to the hybrid coconut varieties and is grown to be exceptionally resistant to the Lethal Yellowing, a disease that commonly attacks several palm species.
These coconuts have also been engineered to be a super hardy, cold and tough palm that can resist against adverse growing conditions.
The Maypan coconut is a medium to large sized palm that reaches an average height of 18 meters. They are best grown in areas that have temperatures above 40 degrees F.
This coconut variety is native to Sri Lanka and a part of India and is a bit shorter than other palm tree varieties. King coconuts grow to an average of 20-20 meters and produce about 20 nuts in clusters. They are shaped like a football, sporting an elongated oval shape. They measure to an average of 20 to 30 centimeters in length, and their skin has a bright orange tint to it.
King coconuts are available all year round and are usually harvested after 7-8 months of maturity. Their nut produces a super sweet and flavorful liquid that is very hydrating, cooling and refreshing.
This variety of coconuts contains a rich nutritional value profile, including large sources of vitamins, amino acids, sodium, potassium, phosphate, and chloride. Interestingly, the liquid inside king coconuts has more amount of calcium as compared to orange, and it also contains a higher potassium content than a banana. These coconuts also contain bioactive enzymes that help boost the body’s metabolism and greatly aids in digestion.
King coconuts are primarily for their milk and also the liquid that is contained within their rinds.
Fiji dwarf coconut varieties are highly demanded not just for their fruit and other by-products but also for their beautiful landscape element. They are a more durable coconut variety and have often been described as a “one tough nut”.
Research shows that the Fiji dwarf coconut contains the second highest genetic diversity compared to all other coconut varieties. They are highly resistant to diseases, unlike many tall coconut varieties. They also have a very unique leaf structure that sets them apart from other coconut varieties. Their leaflets have a closer spacing that makes them appear more lush and rich.
This is also commonly known as the “kopyor coconut” and is a dwarf mutant tree. It is a naturally occurring mutant that produces soft, jelly-like flesh due to an abnormal development of its endosperm. This results in an under-nourished embryo, which is called a “collapsed embryo”.
Although the Macapuno coconut has almost the same nutritional content as a normal or regular coconut, its unusual development produces a different kind of shell that has gelatinous coconut meat with almost little to no liquid.
This variety is not common in a lot of countries however; it is quite famous in Asia where it is highly prized as a sweet delicacy. It is used to make a number of desserts and sweets that are sold at a higher price as compared to those made with the regular coconuts.
The texture of these coconuts is firm but soft, and they contain pleasant sweet, nutty taste. They contain a significant amount of protein and oils which make them a good nutritional source of food.
East Coast Tall Coconut
This coconut variety takes about 6 to 8 years of bearing time and yield about 70 nuts per year. They contain 64 percent of oil content, and they best grow in red loamy soils and well-drained deep sandy loam soils.
These are moderately tolerant to major pests like scale insects, mites, mealy bugs, and rhinoceros beetles.
West Coast Tall Coconut
The West coast tall coconut variety is also known as Common Tall Variety and easily grows in all types of soils. These palm trees grow exceptionally well in littoral sand and also those soils that are tolerant of moisture.
These take an average bearing time of 6-7 years and yield about 80 nuts or palms per year. They also yield a significant amount of coconut water or juice that can be later converted into juice.
Now that you know the various different types of coconuts and coconut trees that exist, which ones are you going to use in your next coconut dessert?
There are two types of varieties distinguished from the palm species Cocos nucifera: allogamous (crossed fertilization) and autogamous (self-fertilization).
The allogamous varieties are designated with the term “large coconut palm’ (or Typica). The most widely cultivated allogamous varieties are divided in two groups. On the one hand, plants that bear a large number of coconuts of medium size and scarce copra yield: common coconut palm of West Africa, the Seychelles Islands, the Hebrides, and the coconut from the Lakshadweep Islands (India). On the other hand, the second group includes plants bearing an average number of large coconuts, each one of them yielding a large output of copra: coconut “Ramona’, eld eKo-Samul (Thailand), Haiti, Kappadam (India) and San Blas (Panama).
Within the autogamous varieties we find smaller coconut palms. They are known as ‘dwarf’ varieties. They usually measure between 10 and 12 m high. They are very precocious and bear a large number of small coconuts. Dwarf coconut palms are classified according to the colour of the inflorescence and the fruit: “green dwarf’ (“Plumilla’), “yellow dwarf’ (” Eburnea’) and “red dwarf’ (“Regia’). These varieties usually bear a large quantity of coconuts but few copra. Due to their precocity they are of great interest in the selection processes. The hybrids “Enanos” x “Grandes” have proved to be highly productive. The hybrids of greater interest are: “PB 121 “, “Enano Rojo’ x “Tahiti’, “Enano rojo de Camerún” x “Oeste Africano’ and “Enano rojo de Camerún” x “Rennell”. There are many other types of coconut palms of botanical interest.
The material used at the moment is chiefly composed of more precocious “Dwarf’ hybrids with a much higher yield of copra per hectare in the adult stage (5 to 6 tons per hectare in six year-old plants).
The fruit of other palm trees not belonging to the species Cocos nucifera are also consumed, among which stand out:
“Coco de mar” (Lodoicea maldivica): It is an enormous coconut of almost 25 kg of weight. Native to the archipelago of the Seychelles and other islands on the Madagascar coast. Its size triples that of an average coconut.
“Pijiguao’ (Bactris gasipaes): It has a radius of 6 cm approximately and it gathers in clusters of 100 fruits and 10 kg of weight. Its importance lies in its starch content.
“Corozo corojó (Bactris minor): The palm of this variety reaches 30 m high. The leaves draw an elegant arc. It spreads all along the tropical strip of Panama to the western Indian coast, up to Colombia and Venezuela. This fruit does not exceed 4 cm long and is covered by a white skin. The juice is the best part of it.
“Palmira’ (Borassus flabellifer): Native to Asia and at present it is mainly cultivated in the north of Malaysia and India. It is a round, slightly flat-topped fruit, and it is quite easy to remove the skin that covers it. Inside the fruit there is a white pulp with three seeds and a little of water, depending on the maturation degree. From the crushed pulp, strained off through a linen cloth, we obtain a delicious drink.
“Salaca’ (Salacca edulis): Original from the south-east of Asia and cultivated in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The palm rises up to 5 m from the ground and has a large crown formed by branches that reach up to 7 m long. The fruit is rounded or oval and the size of a large fig. The scale-like skin resembles a tile roof, it is hard and thin at the same time and of a white or dark reddish tone, according to the variety. The pulp has a bittersweet taste and is slightly astringent, specially if it is slightly unripe. It is divided in three “segments’ covered by a membrane of waxy texture, inside which is a brown and oval bone or seed which is not edible. The ripe fruit is kept for few days in a fresh place, although if they are left soaking with the rind in water with salt and sugar, they will last for weeks.
The varieties of coconut from the palm Cocos nucifera are:
“Coconut from the Indies” (Cocos nucifera): It is the most well-known coco palm fruit (the so-called coconut palm). It comes from the tropical Melanesia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. At present, the coconut palm has become one of the main crops in the tropical countries. The coconut weighs around 2.5 kg and in fact it is a fruit clustered in drupes.
“King coconut” (Cocos nucifera var. aurantiaca): This golden or orange variety is sometimes called “coconut for drinking” because it contains a much more aromatic and refreshing milk than normal coconuts. However, the pulp is scarce. The rind is not so hard and it is easily opened. The palm reaches 30 m high and has long branches. The trunk is very elastic and the golden fruit hangs in great clusters of approximately 20 nuts or coconuts. A tree bears around 60 coconuts a year. It is highly appreciated for its “milk’, the name given to the water found inside coconuts.
Our resident curious questioner Martin Fone poses (and answers) another head scratcher – or should we say, head banger?
Blame it on Robinson Crusoe, if you like, but there is definitely something romantic about the prospect of being stranded on a desert island, if only temporarily, possibly the perfect antidote to the stress and strain of modern life. Metaphorically marooning a guest, they weren’t called celebs in those days, was the simple idea behind what is Britain’s longest-running radio programme, Desert Island Discs, now in its seventy-eighth year and proclaimed by a panel of broadcasting industry experts in February 2019 as “the greatest radio programme of all time”.
‘A coconut can fall and hit you on the head, and if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead’
I’m so far down the pecking order that I don’t expect an invitation to appear any time soon but I do find it fun to while away some time concocting my list of eight recordings to take with me, my choice of book, and my one luxury item. My luxury item is decided in a matter of seconds and doesn’t change however many times I repeat the exercise. It is a reinforced safety helmet. You see, I’m frightened of being struck on the head by a falling coconut as, naturally, my island will be a patch of white sand, complete with a few fecund coconut palms to give me shelter and succour.
But my phobia tells me that the coconuts hanging above my head like the sword of Damocles pose a danger. The American poet, Frederick Seidel, got it spot on in his poem, Coconut. “A coconut”, he wrote, “can fall and hit you on the head,/ and if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead/ dead beneath the coconut palms, that’s the life for me”. I may disagree with his calm acceptance of this fate but, I suppose, it is better than, to use that quaint Irish phrase, turning up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies.
It’s all about the laws of physics, a subject I never got on with at school but I remember that we spent an inordinate amount of time (t) calculating the velocity (v) that a ball would travel back down to earth, courtesy of gravity (g), after it had been thrown up into the air to a certain height (h). If I had known there was a practical application to what seemed an abstruse calculation,
I would have paid more attention in class, but it seems that a coconut falling from a 35-metre tall tree would be travelling at 80 kilometres an hour and packing more than a metric tonne of force by the time it hit you on the head. Whether it hit you directly on the cranium or a glancing blow could be a matter of life or death. It certainly makes you think.
‘The good doctor calculated that the annual death toll was around 150 people a year’
So, how many people are killed a year by falling coconuts?
To illustrate the point that you shouldn’t always believe what you find on the internet, I came across an article in the November 1984 edition of the Journal of Trauma by a Canadian doctor by the name of Peter Barrs, entitled Injuries due to falling coconuts. The good doctor, who had spent time practising in Papua New Guinea and Angola and seen a regular stream of patients with injuries caused by falling coconuts, calculated that the annual death toll was around 150 people a year.
Once a “fact” like that breaks loose on the world-wide web, there is no telling where it will end up. Reputable newspapers like the Chicago Times began to run stories to the effect that coconuts were “10 times more likely to kill you than sharks”. In November 2010 newspapers and broadcasters reported that the Indian government had ordered all the coconuts to be removed from the trees at the Ghandi museum in Mumbai prior to the US President’s visit “for fear that a nut would descend on to the head of President Obama”.
The curious thing about Barss’ paper was that nowhere did he detail the basis of his assertion, other than giving us the “bald” fact. When his claims were put under scientific scrutiny, it soon became apparent that they were based on foundations of sand.
True enough, he had treated patients in both countries for serious injuries caused by falling coconuts but instead of trawling through lists of coconut fatalities, he simply surmised that given the millions of nuts in the world, some people must be killed each year and 150 was as good a number as any. Tellingly, no one in his practice area had been killed this way.
No need for a highway to the danger zone – you‘re already there.
Some unfortunates, though, have been killed by falling coconuts. In 1777, a concubine of King Tetui in the Cook Islands was struck by “a falling green nut” while in 1833, in what is now Sri Lanka, four people were killed by falling coconuts. Given all the perils he had faced and could anticipate that war would throw at him, a US Marine could have not anticipated, when he took a nap under a tree near Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomon Island chain, in January 1943 that a nut would strike him on the head and kill him but it did.
The answer to our question, it would seem, is that some are killed this way but not on the scale that Dr Barss was suggesting.
Mind you, getting a coconut open can be just as dangerous. In December 1923 a man from the Pennsylvanian town of New Castle was struggling to open a coconut and hit upon the bright idea of smashing it with the butt end of his revolver. Unfortunately, the revolver was loaded and discharged, hitting him in the abdomen. He died from his injuries.
Of course, the risk can be mitigated by removing ripe coconuts before they have chance to heed the call of gravity. I am always astonished by the skill, bravery and dexterity of those who shin up the trees to fell the nuts and thin out the fronds. None, though, is faster than George “Johnny” Iona, otherwise known as Captain White Chocolate, who holds the world record, scrambling up an eight-metre tree in just 5.62 seconds, set at the Helva Tu’aro Ma’ohi sports event in Tahiti in July 2017.
I think I will still hang on to my safety helmet. You can’t be too careful.
Credit: Photo by FLPA/Hugh Lansdown/REX/ – Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata) adult, standing on leaf in rainforest, Tortuguero N.P., Limon Province, Costa Rica
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The cast from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Green Room, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1926-1927. The cast enjoy an old actors benevolence, food and drink paid for by Robert Baddeley, to be had every twelfth night of the play’s duration. From Wonderful London, volume II, edited by Arthur St John Adcock, published by Amalgamated Press (London, 1926-1927). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images) Credit: Getty
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Credit: Corbis via Getty Images
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This has gone on long enough. It’s about time somebody spoke up for the coconuts.
For 20 years scientists have been saying you have a better chance of getting killed by a falling coconut than by whatever lethal life form they were getting big bucks to study. In 1984, for example, this column quoted Dr. Merlin Tuttle, curator of mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum and founder of Bat Conservation International, on the chances of being bitten by a bat versus death due to various misadventures (getting poisoned at a church picnic, murdered by your spouse, or bitten by a rabid dog or cat). Having worked up a head of steam, Dr. Tuttle thundered, “Statistically, you have a better chance in this country of dying from being hit on the head with a coconut than from a bat biting you.”
Now scientists are rallying round the misunderstood shark. In late May, George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File and a noted shark researcher, was quoted as saying, “Falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks.”
When I called Burgess, he told me he had gotten this statistic off the Internet — specifically, from a widely reported press release from the British travel-insurance firm Club Direct, saying that “holidaymakers hit by falling coconuts will be guaranteed full cover under their travel insurance policy. The news follows reports from Queensland, Australia, that coconut trees are being uprooted by local councils fearful of being sued for damages by people injured by coconuts. … ‘Coconuts kill around 150 people worldwide each year, which makes them about ten times more dangerous than sharks,’ says Brent Escott, managing director of Club Direct.”
So, Brent, do coconuts kill ten times as many people as sharks, or fifteen? No response yet from the UK. However, Club Direct’s release also cites an article by Dr. Peter Barss in the Journal of Trauma entitled “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts.” (The article received an Ig Nobel Prize, given annually at Harvard by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research in recognition of research that “cannot or should not be replicated.” The award was presented in 2001, notwithstanding that the paper had been published in 1984. Apparently news takes a while to filter through to Cambridge.) The article soberly reported on nine injuries in Papua New Guinea due to falling coconuts, none fatal. Barss notes that a coconut palm tree commonly reaches 25 meters in height, that a coconut can weigh two kilograms or more, and that a two-kilogram coconut falling 25 meters would have a velocity of 80 kilometers per hour on impact and a force of as much as 1,000 kilograms. Several victims suffered fractured skulls, were rendered comatose, etc.
OK, getting hit by a coconut is no laughing matter. But nowhere does Barss say that 150 people get killed by coconuts each year. He provides an anecdotal account of one such death and in a separate paper estimates that over a four-year period five deaths in his hospital’s service area were related to coconut palm trees (including climbers falling out of them). A recent report (Mulford et al, “Coconut Palm-Related Injuries in the Pacific Islands,” ANZ Journal of Surgery, January 2001), which describes itself as “the largest review of coconut-palm related injuries,” also reports no deaths and on the question of mortality merely cites Barss. Given that Barss’ hospital in Papua New Guinea served a population of 130,000, one conceivably could project 150 deaths over that portion of the world population living in proximity to coconut palm trees, but I’m not aware of any systematic attempt to do so. Noting that death reports in tropical countries are limited, Barss tells me, “I am surprised that someone has come up with an actual number for such injuries. It must be a crude estimate, and you would have to ask them what methodology they used to verify whether it has any validity.” Conclusion: Somebody pulled the figure about 150 deaths due to coconuts out of thin air. Take that, shark lovers.
Barss, incidentally, wrote numerous frightening reports while stationed in the tropics. His subjects included injuries by pigs in Papua New Guinea, penetrating wounds caused by needlefish in Oceania, scombroid fish poisoning at Ala Tau, grass-skirt burns, wound necrosis caused by the venom of stingrays, and inhalation hazards of tropical “pea shooters.” He’s now teaching at United Arab Emirates University, in a desert city built around an ancient date oasis. Can’t blame him for making the switch — who ever heard of getting KO’d by a falling date?
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The truth about falling coconuts
Falling coconuts, a prop in innumerable comic routines, have finally garnered a little respect, although perhaps not the type a Canadian physician expected. Dr. Peter Barss’ paper, “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts,” received an Ig Nobel Award last year in recognition of research that “cannot or should not be replicated.”
Figure. Barss: “When you’re treating these injuries daily, it’s not funny at all.” Photo by: Susan Pinker
The only problem is that the paper’s author insists that this is a deadly serious topic.
Barss, a Montreal public health physician, received the Ig Nobel at Harvard from the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, a bimonthly spoof of serious academic journals. Although pleased to be honoured, Barss isn’t laughing. Barss, who lived in Papua New Guinea for 7 years and Angola for 2 years, says his winning paper, published in the Journal of Trauma (1984;24:990-1), documents an important preventable injury in tropical climates.
“Another main source of injury is people falling out of trees,” he adds. “A coconut palm is about 35 metres high, which is like falling out of a 10-storey building.”
The world is a dangerous place, and Barss has devoted his career to documenting the hazards endemic to specific environments. When he was in Papua New Guinea between 1978 and 1985, he was director of a remote provincial hospital and sole physician for 130 000 people. It was there that he saw and documented the results of tree-related injuries.
Looking at discharge diagnoses, he discovered how many head injuries were occurring because people were napping under palm trees. “It may seem funny from our perspective, but when you’re treating these injuries daily, it’s not funny at all,” he says.
Barss applied the same eye to prevention when he published his first public health research paper in the Lancet, which dealt with the risk of burns caused by cooking fires. “Women and girls wore loose grass skirts that would catch fire and they would be severely burned,” Barss said during an interview at his Montreal home.
Surrounded by the detritus from ongoing renovation of his century-old triplex, Barss described how mortal risks emerge from the natural world in developing countries — getting stabbed by leaping garfish while fishing, for instance, or being eviscerated by an enraged wild boar while walking in the jungle.
“People are scared of sharks but we have a lot more trouble with needlefish zipping around under the water like torpedoes,” he said, referring to his published paper on the subject.
Back in Canada, most of the risks are man-made. Here, Barss has made a point of designing the steps in his house to prevent falls. “I’m very interested in building safety, and stairs are an important source of fatal injuries,” he explained, noting that he has lectured medical students on stair safety by using wooden risers and planks as props. “I look at how accidents occur. There’s a tendency to neglect prevention, even here.”
Barss admits he has a different way of looking at the world, an oblique viewpoint that sees risks where others don’t. Perhaps his interest in bizarre injuries began when he was doing cancer research in Chicago. “I got a really bad bite from a lab rat and decided then that I wanted to work with people,” recalls Barss.
He went on to apply his clinical skills in Angola during a guerrilla war (where his first daughter was born), in an outpost in Labrador (where his second daughter was born) and in Papua New Guinea (where his third daughter was born).
Barss, who has been back in Canada for a few years, now focuses on water safety. The week before receiving his Ig Nobel, the Canadian Red Cross honoured him with an award for his work preventing swimming pool and bathtub injuries.
“I do the drowning research for the Red Cross in Canada, where we have the best database in the world on water surveillance,” said Barss. There has been an 80% drop in infant drownings since the surveillance program began in 1992.
Despite his serious take on prevention, Barss is neither embarrassed nor insulted by the irreverent Ig Nobel prize, which he received during a ceremony characterized by paper airplanes, opera singers and a walk-on character named Sweetie-Poo.
“Life is hard,” he observed. “It’s good to have a laugh now and then.” — Susan Pinker, Montreal