Hugh Harries - Tropical Tree Crops Agronomist


Return to Home Page

1968-1978 Botanist/Plant Breeder, Coconut Industry Board, Kingston.

Development and propagation of new, high-yielding, disease resistant and windstorm tolerant F1 hybrid coconuts (Maypan). Variety collection, conservation and evaluation in replicated trials. Devised novel techniques for coconut pollen collection, processing and application. Published a theory on the evolution, dissemination and classification of Cocos nucifera. Convenor of FAO Coconut Breeders' Consultative Committee from 1969 to 1978.

[Parts of this Web site are still under construction. Ask if you want to know more]


The Natural History of the Coconut (in Jamaica)

Jamaica Journal 44, 60-66 (1980)

By the side of the Palisadoes road to Port Royal, less than a mile (1.6 km) past the Plumb Point Lighthouse, there is a pillar bearing an inscription:


The first cocoa-nut tree was

planted here 4th March 1869



Superintendent of the

General Penitentiary

The event that is commemorated is the establishment of the Palisadoes Plantation and not, as might appear, the location of the original coconut palm in Jamaica. Many people realise that the coconut has grown in Jamaica for more than a single century but how many know that it has not always grown here?

Columbus found tall palms on the north coast of Cuba in 1492 and, anxious to convince sceptics that he had reached Asia, claimed that the palms had large nuts "of the kind belonging to India". At that time the coconut was known as nux Indica and had been described by Europeans, such as Marco Polo, who had travelled overland to Asia. It is now considered that the coconut did not reach the shores of the Atlantic and the Caribbean until after Vasco da Gama returned from East Africa in 1499. Possibly, coconuts from Mozambique were established by the Portuguese on the islands of Santiago or Goree on the Cape Verde coast of West Africa. From there they were certainly taken to Puerto Rico in 1549 and probably to Jamaica and other territories under Spanish control. By the time that Sloane came to Jamaica in 1687 he found that coconuts were common here and in other Caribbean islands in the "drier and sandy places". When Captain Bligh brought breadfruit from Tahiti in 1793 he also carried some coconut seedlings. Two were intended for the botanic garden at Bath and two for Spring Garden in Liguanea. Unlike breadfruit plants, coconut seedlings were not a novelty. Even if their origins were exotic the palms from Tahiti could not have been sufficiently different in habit, fruit shape, size or colour, to be memorable. As the result of recent research it is now known that the coconuts in Tahiti and Jamaica have many points of similarity, including susceptibility to lethal yellowing disease. If any Tahiti progeny still exist they will be impossible to identify and will soon succumb to the disease.

Sloane's remark that coconuts grew in drier places may seem strange to anyone who knows how well they grow in Portland where the annual rainfall may be more than 100 inches (2,500 mm). This is due to the different purpose for which the coconut has come to be used, both in Jamaica and elsewhere in the tropics. Originally, it supplied a refreshing and pure drink and it was brought to the Caribbean to supply uncontaminated fresh provisions for sailing ships. In Jamaica, it would have been planted near to harbours and coastal settlements such as Rio Bueno and Seville on the north coast and Port Royal and Passage Fort on the south coast. Later, with the development of sugar plantations, coconuts would have been planted around cane pieces to supply refreshment at crop time. Rum added to a freshly-cut jelly coconut must have been appreciated at a very early date. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the coconut became the agro-industrial crop that we know today. Indeed, the date 1869 which is commemorated by the Palisadoes monument coincides with the introduction of the King coconut from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), part of a batch of 32 palm species sent by Sir Joseph Hooker at Kew and planted at Castleton. Ceylon was then an important source of information on growing coconuts since it was there that the first coconut plantations developed as early as the 1840s. By the time the Palisadoes plantation was established, plantations were being established as far away as Samoa in the middle of the Pacific ocean. This coconut boom continued until the First World War; and its effects, the pre-eminence of coconut for vegetable oil exports lasted until 1963. Coconut oil from copra, the dried 'meat' inside the nut, was the raw material for the production of soap, explosives and margarine in Europe and North America. For the plantation owner in Jamaica coconut provided year round work for a small labour force and this suited sugar plantations when the high and seasonal labour demands of that crop could no longer be met after the abolition of slavery.

The Palisadoes Plantation was planted on land now occupied by the Norman Manley International Airport; the monument is separated by only a narrow stretch of water from the main runway at about the point where this projects into the harbour on reclaimed and artificial land. Lying directly across from the old Kingston waterfront the plantation was easily accessible from the general Penitentiary and the inmates did the clearing and planting. By 1876 hundreds of the first palms that had been planted started to bear and presented a very effective appearance from Kingston when compared with the scrubby vegetation that previously (and now subsequently!) characterised that spit of land. The earliest reference in Jamaica to the use of manure on coconut palms was in the establishment of this plantation when holes were dug in the sand three feet across and three feet deep (1m x 1m) and filled with a mixture of manure and soil. It is recorded that trees receiving this treatment came into bearing within six or seven years. By 1880 over 500 acres (200 ha) had been planted, there were 23,000 palms, 3,300 were in bearing and 49,000 coconuts were harvested. There were obviously other coconut plantations elsewhere in the island for during the period of establishment at Palisadoes the export of coconuts from the island rose from 0.9 million in 1860 to 1.5 million in 1870 and 6.1 million in 1880. Unfortunately, the further history of the Palisadoes Plantation does not maintain this optimistic picture. In 1881 although yield increased to 75,000 nuts 20% of the immature nuts were lost to rats. In 1887 the plantation was leased and, despite fertilization with refuse, carried by boats from Kingston, the trees rapidly deteriorated and many died altogether particularly on the land to the west of the lighthouse. In 1897, the Director of Agriculture gave as his opinion that although the plantation bore fairly well when bush was cleared, pigs and goats kept out and the trees manured, a constant supply of water was needed. With an average of only 38 inches (1,000 mm) of rain per year the salinity of the ground water on Palisadoes was presumably too much even for the salt-tolerant coconut. Today (1978) very few coconuts can be seen at Port Royal, at Plumb Point or at Gunboat Beach.

If the Palisadoes Plantation did not survive there can be no doubt that coconuts flourished elsewhere in the island. It was reported in the Agricultural Society's Journal for 1897 that there was unlimited demand for coconuts on the English and American markets and it would have been at this time that coconuts, along with the banana, would have been planted wherever there was good rainfall. At that time the system of planting was simply to interplant the coconut seedlings in the bananas and let them benefit from weed control and surplus fertilizer and suffer from competition for space and light. Eventually, the coconuts overtopped the bananas and started bearing. The number of plants per acre in the resulting coconut field was so low (40/acre; 100/ha) that bananas might be planted underneath or pasture might be developed. In this way coconuts and bananas came to be grown on the hillsides that were not suitable for cane, particularly in the wetter parts of the parishes of St Thomas, Portland and St Mary. The western end of the island also had fine stands of coconuts and it was in Montego Bay in 1891 that the seriousness of a disease, now known as lethal yellowing, was first recognised.

However, until 1961 it was windstorm, rather than disease, which influenced the coconut industry in Jamaica. Since 1869 (until 1978) there have been 14 years with hurricanes and a total of 17 hurricanes (on average 1.2 hurricanes every 7.8 years). Some of these hurricanes are associated with particular developments in the industry; for instance, the introduction of seed from abroad, the spread of disease, windstorm insurance and the establishment of a research department. probably as a result of the 1903 hurricanes which swept over north-eastern Jamaica, 20,000 seednuts were ordered from San Blas in Panama. The demand, in Jamaica was so great that 10,000 more were ordered in the same year. However, the firm at San Blas failed to fill the complete order for 30,000 because there was an increase in the nprice for coconuts on the United States market. Those who had ordered were given the alternative of accepting nuts from Bocas del Toro (also in Panama) or 'sprouters' from Hon, James Harrison's nursery at Hordley, St Thomas. Fourteen 'San Blas' coconut seedlings are known to have been planted in Hope Gardens in 1904. The 1912 hurricane was confined to western Jamaica and appears not to have affected coconuts but in 1915, 1916 and 1917 there were six hurricanes altogether and two caused widespread damage. In 1915 seed was again introduced from Panama - but from the Pacific coast. This was probably because of the unsatisfactory deliveries in 1904 and took advantage of the opening of the Panama canal in the previous year. When 80,000 palms in eastern St Thomas and Portland were cut down after the 1915 hurricane damage, the whole output of one Pacific coast plantation was contracted for planting purposes. It was immediately noticed that the coconuts from the Pacific coast of Panama were quite different from those on the Caribbean coast. This has been confirmed by subsequent research and it is believed that the Spaniards probably carried these coconuts from the Philippines to the Pacific coast of America in the sixteenth century. In fact, the coconuts on the San Blas islands and at Boca del Toro in Panama are very similar to the 'Jamaica Tall' coconut. Yet the name 'San Blas' for coconuts on the New York and London markets had become so well known that it was assumed that the very different Pacific coast coconuts were the special ones and for many years in Jamaica they were called, incorrectly, by this name. This type was planted in large numbers at Kildare and Agualta Vale on the north coast, at Rose Hall near Bog Walk and at Caymanas and Lyssons on the south coast. These are now referred to as 'Panama Tall' and the original 'San Blas' type, no longer distinguishable from the 'Jamaica Tall' is being rapidly wiped out by lethal yellowing disease.

The demand for coconuts in Central America was so great in 1917, and the cost of freight so high, that it became prohibitive to import more. The trade in Jamaica consisted almost entirely of the husked nuts. In most years no copra was shipped, except after a storm or drought had affected the size of the nuts and the quantity was too great to use locally. Probably there was a good market for coconut because at this time the First World War was making unprecedented demands for nitroglycerine-based explosives. Glycerine is a by-product of the soap industry and coconut oil was the basic ingredient. In other countries oil crops, such as the African oil palm, were also being developed as plantation crops but in Jamaica attention turned to finding better coconut varieties. As early as 1916 a paper had been read at the Agricultural Society meeting which mentioned 16 coconut varieties in Fiji and in 1920 seednuts were ordered from there. A sample of twelve coconuts were received and distributed in 1921. One of the three sent to Mr S.S. Stedman survived and its progeny can still be found at Woodstock in Buff Bay. This was the 'Niu leka' or 'Fiji Dwarf' type and is very distinctive; similar plants grow at Tullock near Bog Walk. A further 1,000 nuts were requested in 1921, but dispatch was delayed in 1922 when an outbreak of bud rot was reported in Fiji. However, it was felt that the nuts were still required. The dispatch of 1,000 'Niu damu' eventually took place in 1923 but the ship carrying them had apparently only reached Vancouver (Canada) when a report was received that the Tahiti coconut weevil occurred in Fiji. The consignment was destroyed. An order for more of the 'Niu leka' seed was also countermanded because of this and because attempts to develop this dwarf commercially in Fiji had not proved successful.

Possibly the apparently unsuccessful performance of the dwarf was not unexpected. In 1921 a paper on dwarf coconuts in Tropical Life was read to the Agricultural Society and it was particularly noted that the initial spike (inflorescence) bore only male flowers. This in fact commonly occurs on any young, underfertilized palm regardless of variety. There seems to have been no thought that there might be different types of dwarf coconut. In fact the 'Fiji Dwarf' is quite distinct from the 'Malayan Dwarf'. In the Eastern Caribbean at this time the Imperial Department of Agriculture requested that the Director of Kew Gardens obtain coconut seed from other countries with a view to obtaining for the West Indies the main economic types. In 1921 a supply of dwarf seednuts, identified as red and green, were received from the Federated Malay States (Malaysia) and were distributed from Barbados to all islands under British administration between Trinidad and St Kitts. Later the same year the Nicobar and West Coast varieties came from India, the 'San Ramon' from the Philippines and eight varieties from a private collection in Ceylon. In 1923 further dwarf seed from Malaya were sent to St Lucia. Although the germination of many of the coconuts sent from the Far East was poor, because of the duration of the sea voyage, some of the types which were established can still be seen today. The fact that none were consigned to Jamaica is important to subsequent events.

Perhaps it was the common interest in other crops, such as sugar and bananas and the almost identical area (of just over 4,000 square miles (10,000 sq. k)) of Jamaica and the main Fijian island of Viti Levu which gave these countries a common bond, and set them apart from the continental colonial territories in Asia and Africa. Certainly, after the opening of the Panama canal, ships from Fiji to New York or London might well favour this more direct route and would call in at Kingston for coal. Government officials taking up or returning from posts in Fiji would undoubtedly meet their opposite numbers in Jamaica. It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1933 the new Director of Agriculture in Jamaica, Mr. A.C. Barnes, brought with him from Fiji (and at his own expense) twelve seeds from two coconuts which were hybrids between the Malayan and Fiji dwarf types. These hybrids in Fiji were the result of the first scientific coconut breeding ever undertaken. Eleven of the seed brought to Jamaica germinated and were taken to Hope Gardens, Potosi (St Thomas), Muirton (Portland) and to Bonham Spring Lodge (St Ann). Now, this type, which has become known as the 'Fiji-Malayan', can be found in many private gardens and on a few farms. Because it is from a hybrid parent it is too variable in habit and production for commercial use but it has good promise for the future.

In the 1930s there was a decline in the world price for copra. Oil factories began to operate in Jamaica. In 1934, following hurricanes in 1932 and 1933 a disease began to cause considerable damage on the north-west coast between Lucea and Montego Bay. Similar, possibly identical diseases had been reported 100 years earlier from the Cayman Islands, before 1872 in St Elizabeth and at Montego Bay as early as 1891. These reports, together with others from Cuba around the same period are now considered to be lethal yellowing disease. For many years the disease was confined to the western end of the island and came to be known as West End Bud Rot. Why it took more than 40 to 50 years to become serious around Montego Bay whereas it has spread all across the eastern end of the island since its outbreak in Buff Bay in 1961 is not clear. Strangely enough, similar coconut disease outbreaks appeared in West Africa in 1934 also. For reasons that are not yet understood the 'Malayan Dwarf' coconut is highly resistant to lethal yellowing. This was not known at that time and, as has been mentioned previously, this variety had not been introduced to Jamaica. In 1939 the Superintendent of Public Gardens received 70 red and 30 yellow seed from 'Malayan Dwarf' growing in Florida (on Key Biscayne) where they had been introduced earlier and established by Mr Hugh Mathieson. A further 20 yellow and 30 red were sent to Mr Vincent Grossett in Port Antonio. However, germination was (once again) unsatisfactory and very few grew. Some can be seen today (1978) on Navy Island in Port Antonio harbour. In 1940 Major Pease, of Roundhill near Montego Bay, who had watched the disease spreading on his estate and had not been able to control it by cutting and burning, managed to get twelve dwarf coconut seed from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad). These were from plants raised from the 1921 consignment mentioned previously. Germination (yet again) was poor and only three seedlings were planted. Two are now mature trees nearly 40 years old (in 1978) and still grow at Roundhill where the whole estate consists of 10,000 palms all red fruited and raised from the original plants. This first practical demonstration of resistance to lethal yellowing surely also merits a monument to match the one on Palisadoes.

The export of dry, husked coconuts declined during the Second World War, when space on North Atlantic cargo ships was at a premium, and ceased for all intents and purposes, when the 1944 hurricane destroyed 1.5 million coconut palms, mainly in the parishes of Portland, St Mary and St Ann. This represented 41% of the bearing palms in the island. To help coconut farmers bring their coconut fields back into production with the least delay almost 70,000 seed of the dwarf variety growing in St Lucia were brought in between 1945 and 1950. This was the 'Malayan dwarf' that had been introduced to St Lucia in the 1920s and it was known to come into bearing early and have satisfactory fruit size. Disease resistance was not a factor at that time. The effect of the 1944 hurricane was to reduce copra production from 11,846 tons (12,036 m tons) in 1943 to 1,374 tons (1,396 m tons) in 1945. Production increased but before most of the replants came into bearing the 1951 hurricane reduced production to 3,408 tons (3,463 m tons) in 1952. Windstorm insurance, introduced in 1949 gave some farmers compensation and once more seed was brought from St Lucia. On this occasion at least 65,000 dwarf seed were brought, in addition to more than 102,000 tall seed. Since the tall variety in St Lucia and that in Jamaica have a common origin it is not now possible to tell them apart and the current ravages of lethal yellowing disease will eliminate both indiscriminately. By contrast, the tall variety from the Pacific coast of Panama survived the 1944 windstorm well. At one site near Buff Bay only 5.5% of 5,120 palms were lost against 59.5% of 18,169 'Jamaica Tall' in an adjacent field. This same lot of 'Panama Tall' also survived the outbreak of lethal yellowing in 1961.

Fortunately, production rose rapidly after the 1951 hurricane because the 1944 planting came into bearing. No hurricane has since caused serious damage to coconuts in Jamaica (at the time of writing, 1978) but as a result of the 1967-8 drought a further 50,000 dwarf seed were brought from St Lucia to supply the newly developed Lethal yellowing Rehabilitation Programme. Jamaica is now (1978) fully self-reliant for dwarf planting material because of the efforts of this programme. The need to keep building up the industry and the success of the industry-financed Sugar Manufacturers Association research group encouraged the Coconut Industry Board to set up a Research department in 1959. At that time the main lines of research were seen to be improvement of planting material, with windstorm tolerance as a prime aim, and to determine what farming methods, soils, fertilizers, spacings, intercrops, weed control and so on should be applied. Hardly had the Research department appointed its scientists than lethal yellowing disease which had managed to move less than 40 miles (64 km) from Montego Bay since 1934 suddenly jumped from Rio Bueno to Buff Bay (nearly 60 miles (97 km)) in 1961. By 1970 the disease reached St Thomas and the entire island has been considered a diseased area since 1972.

To counter the disease, the Research department made the most complete collection of world coconut varieties in the years from 1964 to 1967. It has also developed commercial methods of producing resistant F1 hybrids, such as the 'Maypan'. These and other research findings which include those on rat control (the same problem encountered on the Palisadoes Plantation in 1881), fertilizer needs for all major soil types, spacing and intercropping have been fully documented. The fundamental cause of lethal yellowing disease has proved more difficult to establish. This research has been done by many scientists of international repute supported by the Jamaican, British and US governments and the FAO and is at last yielding to very sophisticated research methods including an electron microscope built at UWI Mona specifically for the purpose. It is to be hoped that it will not be long before this, the final chapter of the natural history of coconuts in Jamaica, can be written. However, pests and diseases, windstorms and praedial larceny, shortage of rain and shortage of labour will probably continue to beset the coconut farmer. Nevertheless, the industry can face the future with confidence knowing that the production of vegetable oil will provide domestic and industrial needs and that the jelly coconut will always taste well with Jamaican rum in it.