Tree of Life: The Coconut Palm

Teal waves curl onto a cream-colored beach. Towering coconut palm trees line the shore, like giant feather dusters rooted in the sand. The green...

Teal waves curl onto a cream-colored beach. Towering coconut palm trees line the shore, like giant feather dusters rooted in the sand. The green fronds of the trees rustle in the ocean breeze, offering a shady retreat from the equatorial heat.

To the modern dive traveler, coconut palms signify warm seas and sunny beaches. To people living in the tropical areas of the world, the coconut palm is the “tree of life,” and has been an important source of food, clothing and shelter for thousands of years.

A Tree’s Roots

The origin of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is the subject of an ongoing debate. The current theory is that it is native to Malesia, a biogeographical region roughly defined as an area that includes Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, and several Pacific island groups. It is difficult to know when humans began cultivating the coconut palm, but there is evidence to suggest that 3,000 years ago coconuts were being used in India.

Today, coconut palms grow throughout the tropics in a band around the world 25 degrees north and 25 degrees south of the equator. The tree can be found in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Australia, the Pacific Islands, South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and the southern extremes of North America. Ideal growing conditions for coconut palms include free-draining aerated soil often found on sandy beaches, a supply of fresh groundwater, a humid atmosphere, and temperatures between 80 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (27 and 30 degrees Celsius).

Both humans and marine currents are responsible for distributing the coconut palm around the world. Portable and slow to rot, coconuts were carried in the ships of explorers and the canoes of the nomadic Polynesians. Saltwater-resistant and also able to float, coconuts can ride marine currents long distances and can germinate even after three months bobbing at sea.

Botanically Speaking

There are two varieties of coconut palm: tall or dwarf. The tall variety is commonly planted for commercial purposes. With a life span of 60-80 years, it is considered a “three-generation tree” as it can support a farmer, his children, and his grandchildren. The tree is slow to mature, bearing coconuts in six to 10 years. A mature tree has a trunk about 18 inches (46 cm) in diameter and can obtain a height of 100 feet (30 m). The top of the tree is adorned with 20 or so large downward curving leaves, called fronds, each about 10-15 feet (3-4.5 m) long. The dwarf variety is about a third the size, has a shorter life span and is difficult to grow, but valued because it produces coconuts earlier than the tall tree.

While a coconut is commonly thought to be a nut, it is actually the fruit of the tree. The coconut is classified botanically as a “drupe,” defined as a stone fruit that usually has a single hard stone encasing a seed. Peaches, plums and cherries are other examples of drupes. Coconuts resemble warped footballs and grow in clusters of 10-20, with 10 or 12 clusters visible on a tree at one time. Each coconut consists of a smooth outer rind (epicarp), a thick fibrous husk (mesocarp), and a stony inner shell (endocarp) pitted with three small “eyes” or germination pores. The pores are often called the “monkey face.” Everything within the hard shell comprises the coconut seed.

Tropical Bounty

One coconut takes a full year to mature from a flower into a ripe fruit. During this time the coconut passes through four development stages, each with different food properties:

Stage 1. When the coconut is immature, or green, the liquid within the inner shell is sweet and refreshing, and can yield up to a liter of juice. Since it’s sealed in its own hygienic container, the liquid can be used in place of sterile water for medicinal purposes, and is often used to treat dehydration and upset stomachs. During World War II, the liquid of the green coconut was used as a substitute for a medical saline drip, saving the lives of many soldiers stationed in the tropical Pacific.

Stage 2. As the coconut begins to ripen, a thin white layer of “meat” begins to line the inner shell. The “meat” has the consistency of a soft-boiled egg at this stage and can be eaten with a spoon.

Stage 3. The coconut continues to ripen as it remains on the tree. The meaty inner lining of the shell thickens and hardens, and the liquid turns to tasteless water. The fresh meat can be shredded and used in cooking, or dried to produce “copra,” from which coconut oil is extracted.

Stage 4. If a coconut ripens fully on the tree and falls to the ground, it can germinate under the right conditions. As it sprouts, a white spongy sweet ball, called the “apple,” develops within the inner shell, absorbing both the liquid and meat. The apple can be eaten, and is considered a sweet delicacy.

Other food and beverage products derived from the coconut palm make the tree a versatile and vital source of sustenance to tropical cultures. In addition to the juice of the coconut, another beverage comes from a different part of the tree. The flowering stalk, called the inflorescence, can be bound, cut and tapped for its sap. Called sweet toddy, the fresh sap is loaded with nutrients and is the daily drink in many tropical cultures. The sap can also be boiled to make syrup, or fermented into an alcoholic beverage.

A common product used in the cuisine of Southeast Asia — coconut milk — is not the same thing as coconut juice from the inner shell. Coconut milk is made by soaking fresh or dried coconut meat in warm water, filtering the solid material, and allowing the “cream” to rise to the surface. Coconut oil, derived from copra, is also used in cooking.

Another food product comes from the cylindrical stalks of new, unopened leaf shoots at the top of the tree. Called heart of palm, the food is prized for its crunchy texture and refreshing taste. Extracting the heart kills a coconut palm tree, and as a result a heart of palm salad earned the nickname “millionaire’s salad.” Fortunately, there are other species of palm trees that do not die when their hearts are harvested, and these provide heart of palm in commercial quantities.

The Giving Tree

The variety of edible products derived from the coconut palm qualifies the tree for VIP — Very Important Plant — status. But wait; there’s more. As the Indonesians say, “there are as many uses for the coconut palm as there are days of the year.”

The tree is an excellent source of building materials. Posts and beams are made from the tree’s trunk. Thatched roofs, made by placing the long leaves close together, keep water out and allow air to circulate. Strong siding comes from the dried spines of the fronds. In addition to providing materials for structural shelters, the standing trees shelter people and animals from sun and rain. They also act as an important barrier to tropical storms, as they’re flexible and able to withstand high winds.

For clothing and household needs, the husk of the coconut is spun into a saltwater-resistant fiber called “coir,” used to make ropes, nets, mats, brushes and sewing thread. The leaves of the tree can be woven into hats, baskets, fans and brooms. Other household items such as bowls, spoons and buttons are carved from the hard shell of the coconut. Handicrafts and jewelry, made from various parts of the tree, are sold to tourists. All parts of the tree can be composted into fertilizer, and the leaves used as animal feed. The leaves, husks and shells are burned for fuel.

Commercially, charcoal filters made from coconut shells are used in gas masks and cigarettes, and are considered superior to filters made from other sources. The cosmetic and hygiene industries have incorporated coconut oil into makeup, soap, moisture creams, and hair care products.

Throughout history, man has tinkered with nature in an attempt to create the perfect plant. In the case of the coconut palm tree, nature beat him to it.

Coconut Folklore

Since the coconut palm is vital to many cultures, it follows that there are numerous beliefs and legends regarding this prized plant. In India, the coconut symbolizes the goddess of fertility, and is bestowed upon women wishing to bear children. Similarly, in parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the coconut palm represents birth, and a tree is planted for every newborn. In the Philippines, human origin is believed to come from two coconuts, one male and one female, washed ashore from the sea. Polynesian legend says that coconuts only grow where they can hear the sound of the sea and human voices.

Many legends tell the origin of the coconut palm, and that of Tonga is retold here. On a remote Tongan island there lived a beautiful young girl named Heina. She lived beside a freshwater lake with her parents. Every morning Heina bathed in the lake and was watched by an eel that fell in love with her. Heina agreed to marry the eel, but her parents forbade it. The father trapped the eel, and before killing him allowed him to see Heina one last time. The eel begged her to ask her parents to keep his head and bury it outside her house. This was done, and each day Heina sat and shed tears where the head was buried.

After a time, a green shoot peeked through the tear-nurtured soil, and Heina realized she was pregnant. As the plant grew, so did the child inside her. Heina bore a son, and the plant grew taller to become the first coconut palm. As the boy grew, he climbed the tree and brought down the fruit from the top. Heina knew that the strange tree would be of use to her people. As a reminder of this love story, the eel’s face can be seen on every coconut in the form of three dark patches — two for the eyes and one for the mouth. It is from the mouth that the goodness comes, for this is the only place to make a hole to reach the sweet juice inside.

What’s in a Name?

To Portuguese and Spanish explorers, the three dark patches at the base of a coconut shell resembled the face of a goblin. “Coco” in Portuguese and Spanish is the word for goblin. The word coco has often been translated to mean monkey face.

In the mid-1700s, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language lists “cocoanut” as the fruit of the coconut palm. It was surmised that Johnson confused coconuts with cacao beans, later called cocoa, when chocolate made its way to England. Over time, the “a” was omitted.

By Amy Gulick