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Coconuts: The Tree of Life in the Pacific


Coconuts are the fruit of the coconut palm tree, which originated in Southeast Asia, probably Malaysia, and was transported throughout the Pacific either by migrating Indonesians and Polynesians or on the drifting ocean currents.  The tree is considered the most useful tree in the tropics because it provides everything needed to sustain life.   

Besides drink, food and shade, niu [coconut] offers the possibilities of housing, thatching, hats, baskets, furniture, mats, cordage, clothing, charcoal, brooms, fans, ornaments, musical instruments, shampoo, containers, implements and oil for fuel, light, ointments, soap and more.

The botanical name for the coconut is cocos nucifera, with cocos believed to come from Spanish, meaning "monkey-faced" or "eerie-faced" and nucifera from Latin meaning nut-bearing plant.  The tree can live as long as 100 years producing an annual yield of 50 to 100 coconuts.  Coconut palms are found throughout the tropics, and can also be successfully grown in areas that receive only mild frosts. 90% of the world's coconut production for export sources from the Asia-Pacific region, though coconut products are an increasing source of revenues for many other developing areas.

Coir is the fibrous husk of the coconut shell that has usually been removed from the fruit we buy in the supermarket.  Being tough and naturally resistant to seawater, the coir protects the fruit enough to survive months floating on ocean currents to be washed up on a sandy shore where it may sprout and grow into a tree, if it has enough fresh water, because all the other nutrients it needs have been carried along with the seed.  These characteristics make the fibers quite useful in floor and outdoor mats, aquarium filters, cordage and rope, and garden mulch.  

Copra is the meat of the coconut and in shredded form probably the most familiar to those who do not live in the tropics.  It is an oil-rich pulp with a very light, slightly sweet and nutty flavor.  As with most fruits, it's best eaten fresh, but does preserve very well in dried and frozen form, and both the oil and the milk derived from the copra have long shelf lives.

Note:  The oil extracted from the copra has been the subject of intense debate as to its nutritional value or harm, though value seems to have won out over a scare that may have been launched by the competition.  Being neither a scientist, nor a medical doctor, and long ago tiring of the hype that is often at the root of this or that scare as well as this or that miracle food, please consult your doctor or do your own research if the type of oil you eat is critical to your health.  

Coconut Water and Coconut Milk are not the same thing.  The lightly flavored liquid inside a coconut is water and is typically drunk straight from the coconut for a very refreshing and nutritious drink. It loses nutritional value quickly and will begin to ferment once removed from the shell.  Coconut milk is made from shredded or grated coconut pulp mixed with hot water to extract the oils and flavors. The former is quite welcome after a hot, dusty hike or too much time in the sun, and the later is used in cooking and as a replacement for cow's milk. A cold-sterilization process is being explored that would permit the bottling of fresh coconut water for sale as an energy drink.

Selecting and Using Coconut

Coconuts will remain fresh for several months, making them ideal for shipping around the world and into your supermarket.  The fruit should feel heavy, heavier than it looks, and when shaken, you should hear the water sloshing around inside.  Avoid fruit with cracks in the shell or any evidence of dampness or mold, especially around the "eyes" of the coconut.

The biggest challenge for most of us is opening the coconut!  A hammer is actually not the best tool, so get a screwdriver out of the tool chest, and a rubber mallet or something similar (a rock will work) and follow these instructions from Learn2: How to Open a Coconut.  Please don't waste that water inside!  Drink it or use it to make a wonderful, melt in your mouth pudding.  See Recipes below.

Coconuts in Hawaii

Hawaii is on the rim of the "coconut belt" and although plentiful here, coconuts are not a commercial crop because better quantities and qualities can be grown elsewhere. There's probably nothing more refreshing after a hike or too much time in the sun than chilled water from a not quite ripened coconut.

Sources and More Information

Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i: NIU
An excellent source on the ancient and current uses of coconuts.

Coconut Tree: Staff of Life
The significance of the coconut tree in ancient Hawai`i, by Sophia Schweitzer, for Coffee Times.

The word for coconut in many languages, plus a wealth of information on coconut palms and their uses around the world.

Coir - Coconut Fiber - Photo essay on how coir is produced and processed.

Seeds that Ride the Ocean Currents - map and description of seeds and nuts that are transported on the seas to reach new homes.

Where Coconuts Grow - index of places around the world where coconuts are grown.

Recipe: Coconut Cake, Pudding and Bread - three tasty recipes from Tropical Trees, a real estate firm on the island of Moloka`i, Hawai`i.  Note: Coconut pudding is called haupia in Hawaii and uses coconut water, not milk, so you need a fresh coconut for this one. It's well worth the effort!

Coconut Photos:
Fijian coconut growing on palm tree and Ripe Coconut cracked open.


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