Happy Mardi Gras! There are a number of botanical components to the celebration of this holiday. Plants usually take a back seat to the glitzy synthetic pageantry of sequined costumes, feathered masks, plastic beads and cheap metal doubloons. Yet, Mardi Gras wouldn’t be the same without help from quite a few different plants. First and foremost, alcoholic beverages of all varieties are the results of the fermentation of any number of plant species from the sugarcane that makes the rum in your hurricane to the barley and rye in your whiskey. Quite a few plants contribute to our King Cake recipes too. However, there is another more direct use of plants in our Mardi Gras celebrations… coconuts. Those of you from Louisiana have probably already made the connection. Congratulations! For those of you that still have a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration on your bucket lists, keep reading.
The hallmark throws of the Zulu parade are elaborately decorated coconuts. Yes, real coconuts. In an age where everything is mass-produced and made of some kind of petroleum-derived plastic product, at the heart of these prized souvenirs is an all-natural plant product. Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (AKA The Krewe of Zulu) have a long tradition of decorating these ‘golden nuggets’ by hand to throw at revelers along the parade route. The coconuts are scraped of their hairy covering, drained of their milk, sanded smooth and decorated with colorful designs.
As you might imagine, throwing coconuts into a crowd of drunken partiers may not be the best idea in today’s litigious society. After all, they are quite hard and after drinking a hurricane or two (or three) one’s reflexes are not as quick as they should be to avoid taking a hit to the face. The Krewe of Zulu was almost unable to acquire the necessary insurance for their parade in 1987 because of their signature throw. Not to worry- the Louisiana government came to their rescue. A special law was enacted in 1988 (SB188) to “exclude the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from the coconuts handed from the floats.” Thus, these ‘throws’ are now handed directly to revelers along the parade route.
The majority of the 100,000 Zulu coconuts procured each year are ordered from Vietnam. Traditionally, Zulu Krewe members transform the coconut from its whole, intact state to glitter-bedazzled throw. However, more and more members are resorting to using pre-drained and smoothed coconuts from a factory. Nevertheless, the members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club put in an enormous amount of work into preparing the coveted coconuts. The most common colors are silver and gold to represent wealth, but some are painted black, representing coal. Each is unique and as ostentatious as the Mardi Gras carnival itself.
Often, the Zulu coconuts have faces that take advantage of the pattern of natural circular indentations on one end of the coconut. These pores are more than just a convenient pattern for anthropomorphic decorations, but are a consequence of the coconut palm’s reproductive biology. The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) produces an inflorescence with both male and female flowers. The female flowers contain three ovules (tricarpellary ovary; plant biology word of the day) which could be pollinated and develop into an embryo within the fruit. The embryo (yes, just a baby plant waiting within the seed) develops just behind the pores on the coconut. While every coconut has the potential to form three embryos within each female flower, usually only one matures and this is the functional pore of the three. The functional pore can be pierced through, while the coconut shell has hardened over the other pores. If you leave your coconut under the right conditions (provided it hasn’t been drained of its milk), the embryo will continue to develop within the coconut and eventually it will start to sprout through the functional pore.
Now you know more than you ever wanted to know about the importance of coconuts to one of our most beloved Louisiana traditions and the biology behind their ‘faces.’ If this has inspired you to see it for yourself, the Krewe of Zulu parade rolls bright and early Mardi Gras morning (this year: 03/04/14, 8am), so pace yourself at the Monday evening parades. Yell, “Throw me something, mister!” convincingly enough and you could get your own plant-based Mardi Gras memorabilia.
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