The Coconut: Kingdom: Plantae; Division: Magnoliophyta; Class: Liliopsida; Order: Arecales; Family: Arecaceae; Genus: Cocos; Species: Cocos nucifera.
Nuts are seeds which are enclosed within a hard outer shell. The humble coconut grows on palm trees in tropical regions, the image of which creates an idea of 'paradise' in the imaginations of many people.
The bountiful coconut has all the elements of a superfood; the 'meat' and its juice are both high in protein, fats and carbohydrates, and none of the palm tree goes to waste. It is possible to utilise the whole coconut and palm tree for basic survival needs.
Small plants similar to coconut palms grew in (what is now) New Zealand as far back as 15 million years ago. The more modern coconut appears in early Sanskrit literature dating from the 4th Century BC. In ancient Indian rituals it was known as Sriphala (the 'fruit of the gods'), and the cutting down of the sacred tree was forbidden.
In various cultures the coconut palm tree provides all of life's necessities: the Malay people call it the Tree of a Thousand Uses and in the Philippines it is revered as the Tree of Life. Coconuts are an essential part of Hindu religious ceremonies such as weddings, as they symbolise a generous nature, usefulness, selfless service and prosperity.
Coconuts feature in many South Asian mythological stories and legends. In ancient India, coconut palm trees were known as Kalpavriksha, or 'the tree which grants all wishes'.
The Fruit of the Coconut Palm Tree
Coconuts are capable of floating many miles after they have fallen into the sea and can seed themselves where they have washed ashore. Sometimes it is possible to see a small deserted island with a few palm trees, as they require no cultivation. The tropic regions are perfect for the coconut palm, as they can tolerate sandy conditions, salination and the baking hot sun.
- Copra: The white coconut meat (copra) can be eaten fresh - or it can be dried to make desiccated and flaked coconut which is convenient for baking. South Indian cooking celebrates the versatility of the coconut and it is used (grated or ground) in many traditional dishes.
- Coconut Water/Juice: If you are very careful cracking open the coconut, you can collect the coconut water (sometimes called 'juice'). It is very nutritious, containing sugars, vitamin E, amino acids and minerals, and it is also an antioxidant. It can be drunk neat or added to other drinks for flavouring.
- Coconut Milk/Cream: This is the very rich stuff with a high calorific value which is drained from the meat and is used in baking, confectionery and sweetmeats.
- Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is used to make soap, beauty products, detergent, cooking oil and margarine (which is very high in saturated fat). The oil can be used for relieving sunburned skin and also as a lubricant to prevent metal from rusting.
- Shell: The shell can be used as a drinking bowl, trimmed and used as a grating tool or burned on a fire like charcoal.
- Husk: The green, fibrous husk provides many uses such as rope-making, potting compost and coconut matting. It also ignites well and so can be used as tinder for lighting cooking fires.
In some parts of the world, monkeys are taught to harvest coconuts. There are training schools for monkeys in southern Thailand. On many South Pacific islands you can be shown how to climb a coconut palm, just as the islanders did generations ago. The stance required is very awkward, then there's the added danger of carrying a large knife for detaching the prize. People on the ground need to beware as well, as it is possible to be killed by a falling coconut.
To open a coconut, poke the 'eyes' through with a screwdriver, drain the juice into a cup, then hit the coconut with a hammer, taking care to guard your eyes from any flying matter. Be aware that too much of the stuff can be detrimental, as one intrepid Researcher found: 'Coconut juice and meat are great laxatives'.
Young coconut water/juice, which is similar to human blood serum, has been used as a substitute for glucose in medical emergencies. During World War II, coconuts provided the glucose supply when there was no sterile glucose available, saving many lives. Coconut water can be substituted when there is a shortage of suitable blood donors or plasma. In this way, the coconut has saved countless lives in Third World countries.
The Palm Tree
- Leaf (frond): The fronds make a thatch which is a traditional roofing material in the tropics. Due to its unsuitability for prolonged use, they must be replaced annually.
Frond can also be used in weaving:
- Gua'gua (baskets)
- Gueha (fans)
- Tuhong (hats)
- Katupat (rice baskets)
- At the Kudat Coconut Festival (Pesta Kelapa), Sabah, Malaysia, over 30 items of clothing and accessories made from coconut cloth were modelled in the Coconut-wear Fashion Show.
- Trunk: The trunk can be cut down and used as logging, or hollowed out to make canoes.
There is a sickly sweet drink called Neera (Indian name) made from palm sap. The sap can be tapped directly from the tree periodically without doing it any harm. Other parts of the palm tree are used in traditional South Asian medicine.
My brother was in the army in World War II, a Captain. One day he sent us a coconut covered in stamps. I was just a little lad, maybe nine or ten years old, and I don't know what excited me more; the coconut or the stamps.
- Derek Wicks, BBC WW2 People's War contributor.
My grandmother's favourite sweets were Toasted Coconut Teacakes. She always had a bag of them and I was only allowed one sweet per visit. She had lived through rationing, and was still very frugal, but it made them a rare treat which I relished.
- An h2g2 Researcher.
I had one on my honeymoon, that a wizened little old Balinese bloke harvested for us - he shuffled his way up the tree and cut a couple down for us. He then used the big knife to hack a hole in the top and poured out almost two litres of the juice from inside (good with rum in it - but then isn't everything?) and finally hacked it in half. The white flesh inside was soft and could be scraped from the inside using a finger or bit of shell. I was very surprised by how soft it was, only ever having had the rock-hard versions we tend to see in the UK! It was lovely, worth travelling back to Bali to have again I reckon.
- A newlywed h2g2 Researcher.
Coconut Beauty Aids
Coconut oil is used in beauty products like body lotion and lip balm. Coconut balm skin-softener is great for rough skin, especially cracked skin on heels. Coconut cream is used in shampoos and conditioners for the hair and as scalp treatments. Also available commercially are coconut-scented shower gels; coconut essential oils for massaging; and coconut-fragranced incense sticks and aroma-candles for a sweet-smelling home.
Feed the Birds
If you have poked a hole through the 'eyes' to drain the juice, you can thread some string through one and hang it upside-down (so it doesn't collect rainwater) from a bird table, fence or tree, taking care to position it well away from where cats lurk. Your feathered visitors will take ages picking it clean, providing you with hours of entertainment. You should never re-fill the empty shell with desiccated coconut as it can swell in the bird's stomach and be fatal. Re-fill your feeder with seed and nut-filled fat which has been allowed to set. Empty shells can also be used for bird-housing.
Fun with Coconuts
- Part of the tradition of a British village fête is a 'coconut shy'. Coconuts are placed on top of posts and those who fancy testing their aim can have a go at trying to knock one off its perch.
- Empty coconut shells can be banged together to make a remarkable imitation of a galloping horse, which is so well-loved by sound engineers. It saves them wondering about how to get such a large animal into the studio, and eliminates natural waste issues.
Coconut shells can also be turned into dolls, handbags, monkey-shaped-toys, windchimes, and a variety of masks.
Coconut Bowling is a sporting event at the Kudat Coconut Festival. The player gets two coconuts to try to mow down three bottles (more difficult than it sounds as the coconut isn't a perfect sphere).
Have a look at some coconut palms via the Coconut TropiCam. Just the thing to brighten a rainy UK day and provide a boost for your spirit.
The Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup are a traditional dance team comparable to Morris Dancers. Locally they are known as 'The Nutters' and they write poetry in their regional dialect.
'Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy' was a top ten hit for Kid Creole & The Coconuts. When the group were invited to perform their hit on Top of the Pops in October 1982, they gave out coconuts to the bemused audience.
Fascinating Coconut-related Facts
The coconut crab, (alternately called the robber crab or palm thief), has no shell of its own so sometimes uses discarded coconut shells to protect its delicate abdominal area. These ingenious crabs are native to Vanuatu.
Some arthritic people eat dried copra to ease joint pains.
It is possible to husk a coconut with teeth, and the world record for this is attempted every so often. Rajesh Prabhu of Udupi husked a coconut - weighing 4.930kg and with a circumference of 30.5 inches - with his teeth in 28 seconds, beating the previous record-holder, Siddharaju of Bangalore, who had husked a coconut (weighing 4.744kg, with a circumference of 28 inches) in 28.06 seconds in 2003.
Coconut paste is used to make some of the sweets in Liquorice Allsorts.
Coconut hair can be a real problem.
The Coconut Palace is an ostentatious palace built for former First Lady Imelda Marcos in Manilla, The Philippines. Overlooking Manila Bay, it is now a museum and hotel, with a butterfly garden and a coconut plantation in the grounds.
In the BBC TV comedy series Only Fools And Horses, the Piña Colada was the favourite drink of character Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter (Sir David Jason).
The Coconut Lagoon, a hotel in Kumarakom, Kerala, in the south-western region of India, has a unique architectural style.
'Coconut' is the title of a song by Harry Nilsson, a novelty calypso number featuring the narrator, the sister, and the doctor, all sung in different tones by the talented Nilsson. This track was used by Coca-Cola™ to advertise their latest soft drink variation, but changing the ending in the commercial to: You put the lime in the Coke, you nut.
There is an annual Coconut Grove block party on Commodore Plaza in Miami, Florida, every May; and an Art and Craft Show featuring coconuts at St Stephen's College, Coconut Grove, coming up in February 2007.
In the popular programme The Muppet Show, Kermit the Frog sings a version of 'The Lime in the Coconut'.
People who are shipwrecked in tropical climates can fashion a bra out of coconuts on a string, or even make one just for fun!
The song 'I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts' has been covered by many, including Danny Kaye and King Crimson. It also featured in Disney's Oscar-winning The Lion King. In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the knights employed servants to bang coconut halves together to sound like hoofbeats, as the budget wouldn't run to real horses. Some of the Monty Python team actually autographed coconuts (or tried to!) for the first 500 people who saw the US première. The new Python musical Spamalot inspired the formation of the world's largest coconut orchestra.
Coconut Daiquiri is a refreshing drink which is simple to prepare. Ingredients: 2oz (5g) coconut cream; 1oz (2.5g) vodka; 1oz (2.5g) pineapple juice; ½oz (1g) lime juice; ice. Mix all the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Serves one person. For a non-alcoholic version, don't add the vodka.