Conservation status: Secure
Origins and Cultivation
The origins of this plant are the subject of debate with some authorities claiming it is native to southeast Asia, while others claim its origin is in north-western South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small coconut-like plants grew there as far back 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Rajasthan, India. Regardless of their origins, coconuts have spread across much of the tropics, in particular along tropical shorelines. Since its fruit is light and buoyant, the plant is readily spread by marine currents, which can carry coconuts significant distances.
The Coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity and prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (75-200 cm annually), which makes colonising the many shorelines of the tropics relatively straightforward. Coconuts also need high air humidity for optimum growth (70–80%+), which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity (e.g. the Mediterranean), even where temperatures are not a problem. They are very hard to establish and grow in drier climates. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable and have subsequently germinated given the right conditions. In the Hawaiian Islands, the coconut is regarded as a Polynesian introduction, first brought to the Islands by early Polynesian voyagers from their homelands in the South Pacific.
Botanically, a coconut is a simple dry fruit known as a fibrous drupe (not a true nut). The husk (mesocarp) is composed of fibres called coir and there is an inner "stone" (the endocarp). This hard endocarp (the coconut as sold in the shops of non-tropical countries) has three germination pores that are clearly visible on the outside surface once the husk is removed. It is through one of these that the radicle emerges when the embryo germinates. When viewed on end, the endocarp and germination pores resemble the face of a monkey, the Portuguese word for which is coco.
In some parts of the world, trained monkeys are used to harvest the coconut. Training schools for monkeys still exist in southern Thailand. Competitions are held each year to discover the fastest harvester.
All parts of the coconut palm are useful, and the trees have a comparatively high yield (up to 75 "nuts" per year); it therefore has significant economic value. The name for the coconut palm in Sanskrit is kalpa vriksha, which translates as "the tree which provides all the necessities of life". In Malay, the coconut is known as pokok seribu guna, "the tree of a thousand uses".
Uses of the various parts of the palm include:
- The white, fleshy part of the seed is edible and used fresh or dried (desiccated) in cooking.
- The cavity is filled with "coconut water" containing sugars which are used as a refreshing drink, and in the making of the gelatinous dessert Nata de Coco. Mature fruits have significantly less liquid than young coconuts. Coconut water is sterile until the coconut is opened (unless the coconut is spoiled).
- Coconut milk (which is approximately 17% fat) is made by processing grated coconut with hot water or hot milk which extracts the oil and aromatic compounds from the fibre.
- Coconut cream is what rises to the top when coconut milk is refrigerated and left to set.
- The leftover fibre from coconut milk production is used as livestock feed.
- The sap derived from incising the flower clusters of the coconut form a drink known as "toddy" or, in the Philippines, tuba.
- Apical buds of adult plants are edible and are known as "palm-cabbage" (though harvest of this kills the tree).
- The interior of the growing tip is called heart-of-palm and is considered a rare delicacy. Harvesting this also kills the tree. Hearts of palm are normally eaten in salads; such a salad is sometimes called "millionaire's salad".
- The coir (the fibre from the husk of the coconut) is used in ropes, mats, brushes, caulking boats and as stuffing fibre; it is also used extensively in horticulture for making potting compost.
- Copra is the dried meat of the seed which is the source of coconut oil.
- The trunks provide building timbers.
- The leaves provide materials for baskets and roofing thatch.
- The husk and shells can be used for fuel and are a good source of charcoal.
- Hawaiians hollowed the trunk to form a drum, a container, or even small canoes.
- The wood can be used for specialized construction (notably in Manila's Coconut Palace).
- Coconut water is nearly identical to blood plasma and is known to have been used in emergency cases as an intravenous hydration fluid, when there is a lack of standard IV fluid. Researchers report that coconut water is high in potassium, chloride, and calcium, and might be indicated in situations calling for increases in these electrolytes.
- The stiff leaflet midribs make cooking skewers, kindling arrows, or bound into bundles, brooms and brushes.
- The roots are used as a dye, a mouthwash, or a medicine for dysentery. A frayed-out piece of root makes a poor man's toothbrush.
- Half coconut shells are used in theatres, banged together to create the sound effect of a horse hoofbeats.
- Dried half coconut shells are used to buff floors.
Coconuts in folklore
Opening a coconut
Remove the outer husk and pierce one of the eyes of the fruit. Drain the juice from the fruit and place the coconut in a hot oven (approx. 250° Celsius) for ten minutes or until the outer shell cracks. Remove from the oven and break into pieces by tapping with a hammer. The coconut meat is easily removed with a sharp knife. Soak the white meat in cold water for five minutes.