By R. Bourdeix, V. Saena Tuia and Alofa Leuluaialii

This website returns the information collected during two scientific visits conducted in 2001 and 2010, on behalf the Ministry of Agriculture of Samoa, the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network, the Secretatiat of the South Pacific Community, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Bioversity International and the French Centre for Agricultural Research and Development. The objective of the second visit was to secure the conservation of the famous Niu Afa cultivar, the longest coconut in the world.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Niu afa coconut variety

Ever heard of the longest and largest coconut fruits in the world ?

As far as we know, they are mainly found in the Pacific Islands of Melanesia and Polynesia. The cultivars described in this paper are located in Fiji, Tonga, and Western Samoa. In 2001, a mission was conducted in these countries to help the local researchers to document locally conserved coconut germplasm and farmer’s varieties. The objective was to initiate the editing job of two germplasm catalogues books to be published by the Cogent Network.

Western Samoa

The settlement of Samoa islands by early migrants is dated 3000 years ago. Coconut has always been a permanent crop, under which the Samoans traditionally carry out the cultivation of a diversity of crops. Literature review was conducted at the national library of Samoa in order to better understand and re-trace the history of numerous coconut surveys and selections conducted in the past throughout Samoa. Coconut varieties names has been registered in the past by Christophersen (1935) and Parham (1972). Christophersen described his “specimen n°3612” as Niu ’afa: Large, long, relatively narrow fruits the husk of which is favored for the making of sennit ('afa).

In Samoa, coconut palms of the variety Niu Afa are rather common, although they are found as isolated individuals located near the houses (see figure 1). Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) were conducted by national researchers in 4 villages of the islands of Upolu and Savaii Islands. The Variety “Niu Afa’ was cited in all the villages. People used its husk for making sinnet. They also appreciates the tender nuts for drinking and use meat of mature nuts for food preparation.

All the Niu Afa palms bear fruits of the same green color. The normal types of Samoa tall coconuts, that grow all around in the same places, are of mixed colors: brown, green or intermediate. This probably indicates that the Niu Afa variety reproduces mainly by selfing, or that all the sprouts that are not of green colors (intercrosses) are discarded by people to maintain the variety true-to-type.

Niu Afa generally start fruiting at 5 to 7 years old after planting, like most other varieties in Samoa. Average number of bunch per palm per year can range from 10-14 and the number of green drinking nuts per bunch is 5-6 in good conditions.

As far as we know, the fruits are the largest recorded in the word (figure 2). The tallest fruits are around 45 cm long; They are even bigger than those of similar varieties that we found in Fiji (maximum 38 cm long, see figure 3) and in Tonga (maximum 35 cm, see figure 4 and 5). Fruits are green and angular in shape, large, long and narrow. Polar view of the fruit is pear shaped and the husk epidermis forms equatorial belt around the fruit at mature stage. Nut cavity is pointed with thick endosperm. Shell is solid and have very distinctive thick veins.

The Niu Afa variety has been collected and is now conserved in two sites : the Crop Developpement Station at Nuu, and he Olomanu Seed Garden, where the picture of fruit was taken (figure 6).

Fiji

In 1963, McPaul had already identified 6 local Fijian varieties, stated at this time as 'non commercial'. One of these varieties was the Niu Ni Magimagi , described as a tall palm producing large, elongated fruits with thick husk. The samples of fruits photographied come from the Taveuni Island. Only a few old palms where available. Seeds of Magimagi have been collected and planted at the Taveuni Coconut Center.

Tonga

In Tonga, only a few palms called ‘Niu Kafa’, scattered in the farmer’s field were observed in the islands of Tongatapu and Vavau. The fruits are smaller than in Fiji and seems to be more angular in shape (see the equatorial section of the fruits). It is very probably possible to find bigger fruits in Tonga, but we did not have the opportunity to observe them during our trip in 2001. Seeds of Niu Kafa have been collected and planted at the at the Vaini Research Station in Tongatapu.

As a conclusion

H. Harries has developed in 1978 a theory about the evolution, dissemination and classification of the coconut. He used the name ‘Niu Kafa” to describe this kind of putative wild coconut palm.: “ First came the natural evolution and dissemination by floating of a variety with large, long, angular, thick husked and slow germinating fruits (…) From this type, selection under cultivation produced a spherical fruited variety, not necessary larger but with increased endosperm, reduced husk thickness, earlier germination and disease resistance..". But, according to Mike Foale (1987), islanders also selected other palms that bore fruits which contained long fibers to make strong twine and ropes for use in construction of both buildings and boats. In our opinion, the huge fruits presently known as “Niu Afa” in Samoa, Niu Kafa in Tonga and Magi Magi in Fiji are no more wild coconuts; they are varieties highly selected by Polynesian people for the utilization of husk. This is particularly clear is Samoa, where the variety seems to be the purest, and where the palms are located near the house and are all of homogeneous green color. May be these varieties are more closely related to the “wild” coconut than others, anyway.

Coconut from India and Africa has in average a higher husk content than most of the coconut from Asia and the Pacific; Niu kafa types are the main exception. But everywhere including Southeast Asia, we found references describing coconut cultivars with high percentage of husk. An important theoretical question to solve is the understanding of links between the Indo-African Coconut group and the Pacific and Asiatic cultivars showing a high percentage of husk. Molecular biology techniques will help to solve such a type of question. But up to now, only a few samples of the ‘Niu Kafa’ type reach the laboratories in good order. At least 10 to 20 more samples of high-husked cultivars coming from various origins in Asia and the Pacific Ocean should be analyzed. Such a study will have important repercussion on the knowledge about dissemination, on the collecting strategies and even on the conception of coconut breeding programs.

Many farmers from Pacific and Asia regions are now still preferring round big nuts. But the coconut husk uses are now making a come back, and its seems very important for the future to further safeguard and study these thick husked varieties with long fibers known as ‘Niu Kafa”.

Reprinted from the paper:

Coconut varieties of “Niu Kafa” Type from Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa islands
By R. Bourdeix (1), V. Tuia (2), L.M. Fili (3) and V. Kumar (4)