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Coconut: The King Of Palms


“Cocas are the fruits of palm trees, and as we have bread, wine, oil, and vinegar, so... they extract all these things from this one tree.” - Pigafetta, Viaggio intorno il Mondo, 1519

During my childhood in rural England, in the rather bleak years after World War II when some foodstuffs were still rationed, my father occasionally brought home a large, hairy nut about the size of a small football. He would heat a poker in the fire until it was red hot, and make two small holes in the nut, which hissed and squeaked. Then, a clear, sweet liquid was poured from the nut into glasses for myself and my sister to drink. Subsequently the nut was broken open to reveal a thick inner coating of rich, white meat. In those days the strange but delicious nut was a rarity, a special treat – at least in the temperate lands of Western Europe.

I little thought, at the time, that I would one day make my living as a writer in Southeast Asia, where palm trees rattled and swayed outside the window, and the great unhusked nuts would seem as common as apples or potatoes in England. For the mysterious nuts of my childhood were, of course, coconuts; the fruit of the coconut palm, perhaps the most extraordinarily useful tree to be found anywhere on earth.

It is not clear where the coconut palm first originated. One of the most distinguishing features of this tree – and the reason for its wide distribution throughout the tropics in both the Old World and the New – is the unsinkable nature of its nut. Dispersal by ocean currents was, and is, widespread. Coconuts can be spotted floating far out to sea from the decks of passing liners, as a result of which there is scarcely a beach anywhere in the tropics not lined by a waving fringe of tall coconut palms.

The coconut palm, or Cocos nucifera, is valued not just for its beauty, but also as a lucrative cash crop. Cultivated throughout the South Seas and Indian Ocean regions, it provides food, drink, shelter, transport, fuel, medicine, and even clothing for millions of people.

Most of the world's coconuts are produced on small native plantations. Unhusked ripe nuts are laid on their sides close together in nursery beds and almost covered with soil. After 4 to 10 months the seedlings are transplanted to a field, where they are spaced at distances of 8-10 m. Palms usually start bearing fruit after 5 to 6 years. Fruits require a year to ripen, and the annual yield per tree may be as high as 100 nuts – though 50 are considered acceptable.

The mature fruits, ovoid or ellipsoid in shape, 300-450 mm (12-18 inches) in length, and 150-200 mm in diameter, consist of a thick, fibrous husk surrounding the familiar single-seeded nut we see in commerce. The clear liquid within the nut makes a nutritious and refreshing drink, but the real treasure inside a coconut is the white meat, which is known as copra when dried.

Copra is a rich source of vegetable fat, which can be used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents, shampoos, synthetic rubber and glycerine. After refining to remove fatty acids, it is used in making cooking oils, margarine and cosmetics. Copra products and coconut milk are also widely used in cooking and flavouring, particularly in Thai and Malay cuisines.

But the value of the coconut does not lie in the content of the nut alone. Almost every part of the tree is useful to man – leading to an Indonesian saying that there are as many uses for the coconut as there are days of the year.

To begin with, the thin shell of the nut can be carved and manufactured into many useful objects such as spoons, bowls and containers. The thick, fibrous husk, known as coir after processing, is used in making rope, mats, baskets, brushes, brooms, fishing nets, charcoal and even water-resistant clothing – Yunnanese farmers in south-west China, for example, use coir capes to keep off the torrential monsoon rains!

Mature coconut palms grow to a height of around 25 metres (80 feet), and are surmounted by a graceful crown of giant, feather-like leaves which rustle and crack in the wind. Besides providing shade and a soothing balm to the eye, the coconut trunk – which grows unusually straight – provides excellent wood for fishing vessels, housing and furniture. When treated and polished it is exported as a cabinet wood known in the trade as "porcupine wood". The leaves can be plaited to make roofing, or stripped to the stem to make brooms or food covers. Even the roots are of value – in times past they provided fibrous material used for brushing the teeth; today they are used for medicinal purposes.

Yet this is not all. Even the sap of the tree has its uses. Tapped fresh from the stem of a mature leaf, coconut toddy is a rich and refreshing drink. Leave it for a few days and it ferments, producing simple palm wine which can be refined to produce a fierce spirit popular in Sri Lanka, India and Southeast Asia. Boiled and reduced, toddy becomes palm sugar, a popular constituent of many South and Southeast Asian sweets.

The reader would be forgiven for thinking that this long list of products deals with every aspect of the coconut, but in fact one gift of the king of palms remains – the fabled "millionaire's salad", so-called because its procurement requires the cutting down of the palm and the expense thereby incurred. Each tree has a single bud, at the heart of the crown of frond-like leaves. The bud of a freshly-cut coconut palm is highly-prized, and used in salads and curries in coconut-producing regions. Truly, no part of this remarkable tree is ever wasted.


Text by Andrew Forbes – Photos by David Henley, Rainer Krack & Pictures From History - © CPA Media