By Jan TenBruggencate
If you love the look of a coconut, you shouldn’t prune your coconut trees, but if you don’t prune them, you shouldn’t stand under them, either.
A swaying palm never looks as good as when it has its full complement of two or three dozen fronds, ranging from bright new spikes erect in the middle to yellowing, tattered flags draped down along the trunk.
The heavy load of nuts gives a coconut in the breeze a languorous sway, a complement to a slow summer day.
But there’s danger here.
An untrimmed tree loses a heavy frond with a rattle and a thud, but it will lose a stalk of nuts all at once: a ba-da-ba-bump that sends a shudder through the earth. Beware being underneath.
It’s not a rare occurrence. Coconut palms will drop a frond a month and 50 to 75 nuts a year.
Which, of course, is why palms in commercial places — parks and parking lots and resort grounds — are trimmed of their nuts and their older fronds. Those trimmed palms, freed of much of their high-altitude weight, are stiffer and quicker in their movement.
A lot of folks prefer planting a dwarf coconut, which grows slower, and produces nuts lower. So, there’s less of a risk of a high-altitude cannonball crashing down on you or your picnic lunch.
There are many kinds of dwarfed coconuts. The variety that Hawai‘i folks refer to as the Samoan coconut may have a full-size canopy and full-size nuts, but a short trunk. As a result, for much of its life it has pickable nuts that don’t require climbing.
There are also dwarf coconuts that are dwarfed in every way: small nuts, thin trunks and shorter fronds.
While mature tall coconuts can live a century, dwarf varieties may live only a third of that time. On the other hand, a young dwarf tends to produce fruits in half the time after planting — three to five years compared to six to 12 years in a tall variety.
Many of the oldest, tallest palms at the back of the Coco Palms Hotel property and at the Waipouli coconut grove are more than a century old. Both were planted as copra plantations.
The Coco Palms trees were planted in 1896 by a man named Lindemann, who had imported tall-growing coconuts from Samoa. He reportedly believed that Samoa nuts would produce better copra — dried coconut meat — than Hawaiian nuts.
The Waipouli grove was planted by E.H.W. Broadbent about 1914, using nuts from the Coco Palms plantation.
Some of the oldest trees in both plantations have died, but many still live. It shows that under the right conditions, coconuts can survive well into their second century.
Coconuts grow about a foot a year, so those trees planted a century ago are in the neighborhood of 100 feet tall. Reportedly, what finally kills them is not old age so much as the sheer difficulty of sucking water from the roots up to a crown that high.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.