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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The largest and deepest body of water on the planet Earth is the Pacific Ocean. It covers one-third of the earth’s surface and, at 60 million square miles, is larger than all the land on earth. It spans the east-west distance between Asia and North America and the north-south distance between the Arctic Ocean and Antartica. The deepest place on earth is a 1,500-mile-long crescent-shaped ditch between Japan and Australia. It’s called the Mariana Trench, and here the ocean floor is seven miles below the surface.

Oceania is the collective name of an enormous area of the western Pacific Ocean

History tells us that the inhabitants of Oceania are descendants of people from southeast Asia who migrated south and east 60,000 years ago when the Neanderthals were living in caves in Europe. They did so in outrigger canoes, navigating by the stars, the currents, and the wind on open-sea voyages.

Oceania’s 3.5 million square miles includes four sub-regions:

  • Australasia is a fuzzily-defined term that originally meant any land south of Asia. It includes Australia and New Zealand. 
  • Melanesia (islands of black people) extends from New Guinea to the Fiji Islands. 
  • Micronesia (little islands) is a region of 2,000 islands, the largest of which is Guam.
  • Polynesia (many islands) is an area inside Oceania that includes more than 1,000 islands spread across 300,000 square miles.

Polynesia is in the easternmost part of Oceania

Most refer to it as the Polynesian Triangle, from Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east. 

Island by island, migrating East Asians populated most of Oceania

When they landed on islands deemed worthy of habitation, one of the first things these migrants did was plant date trees and coconut trees. Date trees thrived in hot, dry weather and coconut trees did their best in hot, wet weather.

The Sumerians are the earliest known civilization

They lived in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 10,000 years ago in the area long referred to as the Cradle of Civilization, as if there were only one. These days we know for certain that other civilizations arose independently in other regions of the world, including the Americas and the Far East.

Mesopotamia is one of the world’s first agricultural societies

One of the things they grew there is the Date Palm, cultivated for its edible fruit, a staple food of the Middle East and North Africa. Date Palm seeds were carried along from Southeast Asia to the islands of Oceania because the trees were small, hardy, and easy to bring along to the next island. Another fruit was also easy to bring along, but provided much more than food. 

Coconuts

Open a green coconut and you get drinking water. The younger the nut, the sweeter the water. Natural coconut water has sugars and salts, just like energy drinks.  

The fleshy white part inside the outer husk is a food high in calories, vitamins, and minerals. It can be ground into powder to make flour and squeezed under pressure to produce oil that is good for cooking but has a very high fat content.

The trunk is not made of wood, but of a fibrous material called sclerenchyma. It supports the trees and carries water up to some of the largest leaves in the world. Young, supple fronds are woven together to make thatched roofs, mats, and hats. Old fronds that fall off when they’re dried out are called sticks and are still used as brooms by many.

The mildly abrasive hairy brown husks are used to scrub nearly everything. Those who have taken Caribbean cruises have seen them carved into the same faces they encounter in native craft markets everywhere cruise ships dock.

Fibers from coconut trees are woven into ropes and the thick outer husks can be ground up for a variety of uses. Medicines are made from the coconut flowers. Every leftover part of the coconut palm tree is used as fuel.  

A single coconut palm grows as tall as 50 feet

It yields as many as 200 coconuts a year for about 80 years. That’s 16,000 nuts that can be used for food, shelter, clothing, and tools.

January 9, 1878

The Providencia was a 175-ton sailing ship carrying a cargo of rum, cigars, animal hides, beans, garlic, and 20,000 coconuts from Trinidad, all headed for the warm Gulf Stream current and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. 

In clear weather, the Providencia was shipwrecked on a southeast Florida beach

Local entrepreneurs William Lanehart and Hiram F. Hammon claimed the ship as salvage, meaning they owned the cargo, too. They sold the coconuts for two-and-a-half cents each. There were far too many coconuts for the few locals to eat, so Lanehart and Hammon planted thousands in groves to cultivate as a cash crop. 

Coconut Palms were not native to Florida

But they flourished in Florida’s sandy soil, hot sun, and heavy rains. Within a decade, the area was filled with so many coconut palm trees that is was named Palm Beach. To this day, the tallest coconut palms in the United States are found along the shores of the city. 

Note: Another accounting of the shipwreck points to the clear and calm weather as evidence the Providencia was wrecked on purpose. 

Ask people to describe a palm tree

Most will say it’s got a tall, thin trunk and long green leaves drooping down from the top. It’s the mental image most of us have, but there are at least 2,600 other varieties of palms.

Palm trees grow in 14 states, and Florida has the most varieties

The Christmas Palm looks good and is easy to take care of. The slim grey trunk produces bright red fruits reminiscent of Christmas tree ornaments. It grows to 10-20 feet outdoors. Smaller varieties thrive indoors, too.

The Fishtail Palm has slender arms and delicate fronds with leaflets that look like fish tails. Its maximum height is 15 feet.

The Sago Palm grows larger leaves when it finds itself in the shade. It’s a slow grower, reaching its full 15-foot height in 50 years. The sharp, pointed leaves are dangerous.

The Areca Palm is a clustering palm often confused with bamboo. It grows 20 to 25 feet tall and is a favorite of residential and commercial landscapers. Smaller versions that grow only six or seven feet tall make good indoor plants, especially in low-light conditions.

The Foxtail Palm has a self-cleaning trunk, meaning the dead brown growth falls off on its own, leaving the trunk smooth and grey. It wants lots of light and grows to 25-30 feet. In South Florida, that’s a height considered suitable for smaller landscapes.

The Queen Palm thrives in Florida. It is a commonly-found tree that is low-maintenance, grows in many types of soils, and quickly tops out at 30-60 feet.

The Canary Island Date Palm has a singularly impressive dense crown of feathery leaves and a diamond-pattered trunk. Its adult height is between 40 and 60 feet.

The Coconut Palm grows as tall as 50 feet. The tree is used for many things, but what people crave most is the fruit that it begins producing in its fifth or sixth years.

The Cabbage Palm differs from most other palms in that its leaves emerge directly from the top of the trunk. It’s native to Florida, durable, and grows to 50-70 feet.

The Royal Palm is also a Florida native. This is the palm tree many people think when they think of South Florida. Its smooth trunks clean themselves and it grows as tall as 60 feet.

The Mexican Fan Palm has an extra-large trunk covered in old leaf bases and fan-shaped fronds. Growing as tall as 100 feet, it is said to be wearing a hula skirt.

There are only 12 palms native to Florida

One of the nastiest is the Saw Palmetto, named for the sharp teeth and spines on each of its many blades. It is a clumping, multi-trunked palm with a tangled mass. Imagine having to hack your way through miles of these slow-growing palm shrubs on foot with only a machete. No wonder so many people stayed near the ocean.

Bonus

The Coco de Mer Palm is also known as the Love Nut. Native to the Indian Ocean’s Republic of Seychelles, it has the largest seed in the entire plant kingdom, weighing as much as 60 pounds.

Colombia has 222 species of palms, the most in the world. The Quindío Wax Palm is unique to Colombia’s Cocora Valley. It has adapted so well to living one and a half miles above sea level that it grows to 200 feet, making it the tallest palm in the world.

The freshest coconut water in the West Indies is sold at open-air fruit and vegetable stands along the highways, roadways, and city streets

Even more convenient are the drive-up/walk-up roadside vendors who cut the tops off the green coconuts with machetes, poke a hole in the skin, and serve the water to customers in its own container. Here’s a two-minute video of a street vendor selling coconut water in Barbados.

 

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