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The Coconut

Updated on August 17, 2015

The coconut is a palm found in the moist tropics. The coconut palm is indispensable to the economy of some areas and supplies many products for local use, especially on islands in the South Pacific where it may be the only important crop. The green coconuts supply a nutritious drink; the ripened nuts furnish food and oil, the latter being used for cooking and for lamp fuel. Coir, a fiber obtained from coconut husks, is used in brushes and rope. Coconut shells serve as cups and as fuel. An alcoholic drink, syrup, and sugar are made from the sap of the unopened flower cluster. The leaves are used for thatching and for baskets, and the trunk serves as a building material.

Photos by Robert Wetzlmayr, Cherilyn Derusha, Auro Queiroz and Shauqee Pauzi

Distribution and Origin

The coconut palm grows along coastal areas, and occasionally inland and at elevations up to about 2500 feet (750 meters), throughout the humid tropics. Coconut palms are grown to some extent in the subtropics, but productivity of these palms is low. An annual rainfall of at least 60 inches (150 cm) , distributed fairly uniformly throughout the year, is essential for maximum productivity unless underground water is available.

There is some question as to the coconut's place of origin. Most authorities believe the coconut is native to tropical America and became dispersed in prehistoric times through the Pacific islands and adjacent areas. How dispersal occurred is not known, but man was probably partly responsible. The coconut, however, is well adapted for dispersal by ocean currents. The fruits (the coconuts) can float for months, and when cast ashore they are capable of producing trees if conditions are favorable. About half the world's coconut production comes from non-cultivated palms.

The Tree

The cylindrical trunk of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is 60 to 100 feet (18 to 30 meters) and is ringed with leaf scars. About 25 to 30 large pinnate leaves a re clustered near the top of the trunk. Each leaf, which may grow to a length of 20 feet (6 meters), consists of a strong fibrous leaf stalk (petiole) and a midrib (rachis) from which extend many leaflets.

Flowering usually begins when the tree is 7 to 10 years old. A flower cluster, classified botanically as a spadix, is produced in the axil (the angle between the upper surface of the leaf- stalk and stem) of each leaf.

The Coconut

The immature nuts contain a copious quantity of coconut water. By the 12th month the fruit has little milk and may be 9 to 10 inches (23 to 25 cm) long. A thick husk surrounds the nut, which encloses a single large seed. The seed coat is pressed close against the nut.

Coconuts may be collected after they fall, or harvesters may climb the trees about every three months to cut the ripened fruits. Harvesting also can be done from the ground by means of a knife attached to a long pole.

Commercial Products

Copra, the dried meat of the coconut, is the principal export product derived from this plant. Coconut oil, one of the most important vegetable oils, is extracted from copra. Other major commercial products are the fresh nuts, coir fiber, and shredded coconut.

The principal areas of production and export of coconut products are the Philippine Islands, Indonesia, Ceylon, Oceania (the islands of the west central Pacific Ocean) , and the Malay Peninsula.

Indonesia probably leads in production, but because of large domestic use, total exports are less than those of the Philippines, where they are the greatest earners of foreign exchange. The principal importer of coconut products is the United States.

The increasing importance of the coconut in world trade is due primarily to the extensive demand for coconut oil. Formerly, the oil was used mostly for making soaps and candles. All floating soaps were made from coconut oil, until it was discovered that other oils could be used if air was mixed with the soap during manufacture.

Because of its high lauric acid content, which imparts a quick-lathering property, coconut oil is used in the production of quick-lathering soaps.

Refined coconut oil is odorless and colorless; when solidified, it is white to yellowish in color and melts at about 22°C. Coconut oil serves as a butterfat substitute in margarine, chocolate, and other foods. It is also used in cosmetics and synthetic rubber and as a plasticizer in many products.

How do you like your coconut?

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    • kitchentinker profile image

      kitchentinker 6 years ago

      Coconut has always been a part of our dishes. I live in a region where coconut plays an important role in our exotic cuisine. It's not only the coconut milk that is of great health benefits but every part of the tree itself has many uses and a very good source of livelihood. Thanks for your very informative lens.

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      almirah 6 years ago

      Coconut is a super tree. You can use everything from a coconut tree... Great lens!