Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wandering Plants -- Coconuts of Medieval Iceland!

coconut palm on beach, Pacific coast, Panama
coconut palm on beach, 
Pacific coast, Panama
A coconut in Iceland? in the Middle Ages?

I'm sure I could find one in the market in Reykjavik today. Coconuts are tropical but lots of tropical things are traded all over the world. For example, Icelandic chocolate is a favorite across all Scandinavia.

However, looking back into history, travel was slow and often difficult. Coconuts are native far, far from Iceland. 

Coconuts are the seeds of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (palm family, Arecaceae). Palms, like bananas and bamboo, are not strictly trees, because they do not form wood. The tough and flexible coconut palm trunk is made of the very tightly overlapping bases of the large leaves. Coconut palms can grow 80’ (24 m) high. 

The word coconut is used for the plant, the fruit and the seed. I'll try to be clear.

Coconut fruits have a large green covering  surrounding a single hard nut-like seed. Inside the coconut seed is the embryo and coconut water (liquid endosperm) to feed the developing seedling. Over time, the endosperm solidifies into an oil-rich layer inside the seed coat, the "coconut" which we eat in chunks or grate in cooking. When the fruit is ripe the outer covering turns yellow, orange, red or brown. 

coconut with camera case for scale
coconut fruit with camera case for scale

A mature coconut fruit is 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) long. A full sized coconut fruit can weigh 2.6- 4.4 lb, (1.2- 2.0 kg ).

coconut fruits
coconut fruits
As noted above, coconut palms are tropical, growing in the oceanic coasts of the tropics. They are believed to be native to the Indo-Pacific, that is, in the area of Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dispersed east into the south Pacific and west toward Africa. Coconuts float well and can drift across large areas of open ocean to germinate on new shores, but, long ago, humans found coconuts extremely useful and helped coconuts reach new lands. Before Columbus, they grew pretty much all around the Indian and Pacific Oceans but not the tropical Atlantic.

coconuts on coconut palm
coconuts on coconut palm
European culture, developing on the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea well north of the tropics, knew nothing of coconuts for hundreds of years. Before Portuguese explorers crossed the the equator off Africa in 1480s, only a handful of Europeans had traveled to Asia, seen the Indian Ocean or visited tropical east Africa, and even fewer had returned. Marco Polo wrote about a coconut he saw in 1280 in Sumatra. Coconuts, the dehusked shell of the seed, were probably occasionally brought by traders into the southern Mediterranean. After 1300, though, tensions between Christians and Moslems impeded overland trade with the East. (see expansion of Ottoman Empire: map ).

Consequently, the coconut was one of the strange fruits discovered by Portuguese explorers when they sailed south around Africa. By 1550, European sailors had carried coconuts to Brazil and the Caribbean. But they also took them home to Europe. As early as 1498, Vasco da Gama brought coconuts from India to Europe--where they were a sensation!

Some of the coconuts that sailed around Africa in European ships might well have been edible upon arrival in Portugal. But after the milk was drunk and the meat eaten, the shell still had value. Coconut shell cups became the rage among the wealthy in Europe in the 1500s. They set the homely brown cups in fine silver and used them as drinking goblets.

The St. Nicholas Chalice,  Iceland National Museum, Reykjavik
The St. Nicholas Chalice,
Iceland National Museum, Reykjavik

That why there's a 500 year old coconut in the National Museum of Iceland. The St. Nicholas Chalice is dated at about 1500 AD. It was a possession of the Church of St. Nicholas at Oddi, Iceland, a famous center of learning in Iceland from the 11th century. Bound in silver, embellished with gilt filigree and set with colored stones or equally valuable glass, the coconut in the St. Nicholas Chalice was used to commemorate the saints on holy days. 

There was indeed at least one coconut in medieval Iceland.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Harries, H. C. 1995. Coconut. Cocos nucifera L. (Palmae). pp. 389-394 IN The Evolution of Crop Plants. 2nd ed. J. Smartt and N.W. Simmonds, editors. Longman Press, London.
Simpson, B.B. and M. C. Ogorzaly.  2014. Plants in Our World. 4th ed. McGraw Hill, New York.
Vaughan, J.G. and C. A. Geissler. 1997. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Seen on a trip with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Academic Arrangements Abroad.

Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazon link.

Kathy Keeler

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