The Coconut Palm



Is there any palm more beautiful than the coconut? Gracefully reclining on the beach as if bending with the wind, its crown of pinnate fronds dancing in the breeze, there is no doubt of its physical beauty, yet the coconut has another kind of beauty, its intimate relation to humankind over history and even at the present through the uses found for it. The coconut, Cocos nucifera, is without a doubt the best palm of the world based on its products and its uses for people. The date palm, a close rival, is less well adapted and therefore is of great importance in a much smaller geographic region. The oil palm undoubtedly of great importance, is well adapted but much less useful than the coconut. This marvelous palm and its many uses will be described here.

The coconut throughout the world

The coconut was well distributed before the age of European exploration, making its origin difficult to trace. While the plants most related to the coconut are found in Northwest South America, before Columbus the coconut was known on only a small part of the Pacific coast and not at all on the Atlantic coast of South or Central America. The evidence is varied and controversial, but most probably the original coconut developed in the area from Southeast Asia to the Pacific islands, where coconut culture is well advanced. Adapted to disbursal by the seas, the coconut could have been distributed even without the help of humankind, although the roles of humans in selecting and transporting coconuts are evident. While the coconut today is produced throughout the tropics, nevertheless the most important regions of production are still the islands of the South Pacific, the Philippine islands, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. This concentration of production in one region does not negate the fact that the coconut is well known and important in all parts of the tropics.

The coconut is broadly adapted to the tropics. While associated with the seashore and thus with lands near sea level, the coconut can be found in large inland plantations in some countries, and is frequently seen as well in the foothills of the mountains. It cannot tolerate much frost, however, nor extremes of either flooding or drought. While usually found in sands, coconuts can be grown in a wide variety of soils.

Coconuts are highly varied. Roughly divided into two kinds, the tall and the dwarf, the first varies in shape and size of the nut and the husk which surrounds it, and in the special uses for which a variety is used, as a drink, for the soft pulp, or for the mature pulp. The dwarf varieties are more resistant to lethal yellowing, a fatal disease of palms, and include external fruit colors ranging from green to yellow to orange and even red. While the tall coconuts are cross pollinated, as the rule the dwarfs pollinate themselves.

Table 4. The uses of the coconut palm.

Part of the Palm Uses

Relative Importance of uses

Entire palm Shade for other crops High
  Light shade for pastures Very high
  Beauty in landscapes and gardens Very high
Trunk Timbers for construction Medium
  Sawed planks for construction Low
  Extraction of starch Low
  Hardest wood for veneers and carving Medium
Roots Extracted for medicines Low
  Toasted, ground as coffee substitute. Low
  Carved as tooth picks Low
Terminal bud Removed as palm cabbage, thus killing Low but only the palm
because palms are so useful
Petiole of leaf Used as a timber in construction Very high
  A pole for many applications High
  Used as fuel Medium
Blade of leaf Thatching High
  Fencing High
  Weaving Very high
  In bundles as torches Low
Inflorescence Tapped as a source of sap, used for
drink, toddy, vinegar, sugar, arrack
  Source of yeast for bread Medium
Flowers and pollen Added to other foods Very low
Immature fruit Used as a source of drink High
Mature fruit Uses as a source of edible "jelly" Medium
Husk Processed as coir fiber High
  Coir used as rooting medium Medium
  Uses as fuel Medium
Shell Used to make utensils and ornaments High
  Used to make charcoal Low
Pulp of nut Used as a fresh food Medium
  Grated and extracted as "milk" High
  Dried and used as condiment Medium
  Used as animal feed High
Extracted oil Used in foods, margarine Very high
  In soaps, cosmetics, illuminants High
  As hair oil and oil for the body Very high
Residue after As an animal feed High extraction
Liquid As a beverage Medium
  Used in cooking High
Germinating nut Cooked as a vegetable High

Ecological roles of the coconut

The coconut is seldom or ever planted for its ecological roles, yet, because of the vast areas of the tropics covered by coconut plantations, the coconut does play an important part ecologically. As a light shade, the coconut lends itself to forms of multistoried planting. Very commonly animals are pastured on natural or improved grasses below the shade, which, in time, can compact some soils and reduce the yields of the coconuts. Less harmful is the production of other crops, shade-tolerant shrubs and trees including banana, cacao, and coffee, or annual plantings of annual and perennial vegetables. The yields of these vegetables are usually not as high as they would be in full sun, yet, it is profitable to make use of the coconut plantation in this way as well

With time the coconut plantation produces large quantities of residues, the old leaves and the unused coir, materials that rot slowly and are useful in reducing erosion, and in filling gullies.

Uses of the coconut for food

The most important uses of the coconut are summarized in Table 4. The uses as food are quite varied, and most of them are centered around the nut, whether mature or green. The peoples of the world have discovered an amazing variety of uses that depend in part on the variety and its characteristics, and on the maturity of the nut. For example, the liquid of the immature nut is a refreshing drink, but the liquid of the mature nut, while of good taste, is more likely to loosen the bowels. The liquid of the nut is not the same as the "milk". This name refers to the juice extracted from the grated kernel, by pressing or wringing in a cloth, with or without first adding some water. Rich in oil, the liquid is white and milky in appearance, and of high nutritive value (oil, carbohydrates, protein). It is mixed into many kinds of food.

Oddly, the mature kernel is not used at the household level as frequently as the "milk", yet has its major use in the production of copra, dried coconut kernel, pressed for the extraction of oil which has many uses as food (cooking oil, condiments, pastries, margarine) as well as personal uses (hair and anointments), and a very wide variety of industrial uses. The residue after extraction of oil is a fibrous cake rich also in protein, which is used as an animal feed.

While the terminal bud or cabbage is highly prized as a food, and while the trunks can be used for the manufacture of starch (sago), these uses are destructive and are practiced only in emergency or when old palms are destroyed by storm or are removed. However, the sap of the inflorescence is highly prized for its many uses. The tapping of the inflorescence for the sap is a difficult art which may include beating of the inflorescence and shaving away a small portion each day to keep the sap flowing. The sap can be used fresh as a beverage, but more often it is permitted to ferment naturally, providing an alcoholic toddy. Still later fermentation leads to the production of vinegar. The best arrack, the distilled spirits of toddy, comes from the coconut palm. The brown sugar, jaggery, obtained by boiling the sap, is a familiar and useful food item in many parts of the world.

Even the germinating nut has its uses. The ball of roots within the nut (haustorium) is prized as a cooked vegetable.

Finally, the uses of various parts of the coconut palm as medicines must be mentioned, although these uses are so numerous and sometimes controversial that they cannot be even listed here.

Non-food uses of coconut

The extraction of copra for oil and its consequent use for food and for industrial purposes has been for many years the primary importance of the coconut on the international market. However, at the level of the farm the uses of coconut for non-food purposes are many, and for the small land holder, these uses may be as important as the food uses. This is especially true in the uses of the palm for construction. The trunks make good, heavy foundation supports of the house. The trunk can also be sawed to boards for floors. The petioles and midribs of the leaves are useful in frameworks for walls and roofs, and the leaves themselves are used in thatching. The leaflets may be woven into mats for the floor or as panels for walls.

Many household items are made from the coconut palm. Containers and utensils are made from the shell of the nut. The leaves are woven into many products. The coir fiber is used in mattresses. The fuel of the household may come from parts of the coconut palm, directly or after conversion to charcoal. The oil is used in lamps, and bundles of leaflets are used in torches.

Surely the coconut palm is more that a staff of life. In some regions it is the basis for human survival. Yet, the coconut palm may also be thought of as a model, illustrating the many uses to which palms can be put. This will be evident in the coming chapters as other palms are discussed.

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