One of the Most Useful Nuts on Earth
THERE is an extraordinary “nut” that has traveled around the globe. It provides both food and drink. And the unique silhouette of the tree that bears this nut is the hallmark of tropical islands. Which nut are we talking about? The coconut—one of the most useful nuts on earth. *
For people not from the Tropics, the coconut palm may be little more than a symbol of a tropical holiday. But for those who live in the Tropics, the tree has much more to offer. Indonesians claim that its fruit has “as many uses as there are days in a year.” In the Philippines it is said: “He who plants a coconut tree plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for himself, and a heritage for his children.”
This saying is no exaggeration. According to the book Coconut—Tree of Life, the coconut palm “supplies not only food, water and oil for cooking, but also leaves for thatch roofs, fibre for ropes and mats, shells that can be used as utensils and ornaments, and the sweet sap of the inflorescence from which sugar and alcohol are made.” The book adds: “Even the wood, if cut in the right way, can be used.” In fact, the inhabitants of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean constructed boats out of coconut products, and it is said that they sailed them to Arabia and the Philippines. But the coconut, rather than its cultivators, has proved to be the greatest seafarer of all.
A Seafaring Seed
The coconut makes itself at home along most tropical shores, providing there is sufficient rainfall. Although local people may plant the versatile coconut palm, the coconut has made its own way to some of the most isolated places on the planet. Seeds are dispersed in many ways, but the coconut harnesses the waters of the deep. And therein lies its success as a world traveler.
When a coconut is ripe, it drops to the ground. In some instances, the ripened nut rolls down the beach toward the water. The high tide may then wash the coconut out to sea. Because its fibrous husk holds plenty of air, the coconut floats easily in the water. If the coconut was on a Pacific atoll, it may only drift to the other side of the lagoon. But if it reaches the open sea, the coconut can travel great distances.
Saltwater, which destroys most other seeds, takes a long time to penetrate the hardy coconut husk. Coconuts can easily withstand three months at sea—at times drifting thousands of miles—and still germinate successfully when reaching a suitable beach. Perhaps this is the way the coconut has colonized many of the world’s tropical coastlines.
The Taste of the Tropics
Outside the Tropics, people may think of coconut as a flavoring for candy bars or cookies. Go to Southeast Asia, however, and you will discover that the coconut is truly a versatile nut. According to the book Pacific and Southeast Asian Cooking, “coconut is the one essential ingredient in the cooking of all the countries and regions and islands from Hawaii to Bangkok.” The book also states that to the inhabitants of those areas, “the coconut is a necessity of life from which they receive nourishment . . . in many forms and through an almost countless variety of dishes and tastes.”
The reason for the coconut’s pride of place in tropical kitchens is simple: It supplies water, milk, and cooking oil. The clear, sweet liquid that fills the unripe, green nut is known as coconut water or coconut juice. It makes a delicious, refreshing drink that is often sold at wayside stores in the Tropics. Coconut milk, on the other hand, is obtained by mixing grated coconut flesh with water and then squeezing out the liquid. Coconut milk adds flavor and substance to soups, sauces, and dough.
To extract cooking oil from coconuts, the farmer splits open the ripe nut and dries it in the sun. Once dry, the flesh of the coconut, or the copra, can be separated from the shell, and then the oil can be extracted. In the Tropics, coconut oil is the principal cooking oil, whereas in Western countries it is often used in margarine, ice cream, and cookies.
Harvesting coconuts is not an easy task. Often, a harvester will climb up the tree and cut off the nuts. Other harvesters use a long pole with a knife attached. In Indonesia, monkeys have been trained to do the job. The simplest method—preferred by those who want to be sure they harvest a ripe nut—is to wait until the nut falls to the ground on its own.
However it is harvested, the coconut’s multiple uses have made it an ideal cash crop as well as an invaluable source of food for many. So the next time you see a coconut palm—be it in a picture or in real life—remember that it is much more than an ornamental tree that decorates tropical beaches. You are looking at a tree that produces one of the most useful “nuts” on earth.
^ par. 2 Although in some lands the coconut is not considered a nut, several sources do refer to the fruit’s seed as a nut.
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COCONUT CRAB Humans are not the only ones who appreciate the bounty of the coconut. The coconut crab lives in a hole in the ground during the day, but it feasts on coconuts at night. Although humans need a machete to split open a coconut, this resourceful crab goes through quite some work to split a coconut by pounding it against a rock until it cracks open. A diet that includes coconuts seems to suit this creature—it can live for over 30 years!
COCONUT IN COSMETICS Since coconut oil is ideal for the skin, manufacturers use it in lipstick and suntan lotion. And if you use biodegradable soap or shampoo that makes plenty of lather, coconut oil may well be one of its essential ingredients.
The coconut can survive ocean voyages
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Top right inset: Godo-Foto