Coconut is one of the world's most important and versatile plants and it is believed to originate from the geographic region extending from the Philippines, through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, to northern Australia. Nowadays, it is widely cultivated and has become naturalised in most all, if not all, tropical countries worldwide.
In its natural form, it is a medium-sized to tall palm, typically 10 to 25 m (30 to 82 ft) tall, though occasionally reaches heights of up to 35 m (115 ft).
It develops a slender trunk, normally straight but sometimes curved by wind, with smooth ringed grey bark and a rounded crown made up of large feathery palm leaves, each up to 5 m (16 ft) long. The two main forms are the tall and dwarf, with the dwarf variety reaching only 10 to 15 m (30 to 50 ft) tall.
The flowers are small, pale yellow and are borne on large, branched flower stalks, with female and male flowers on separate branches of the same stalk. Coconut palms bloom all the year round, except when they are stressed by cold or a lack water, as is common in areas with a pronounced dry season.
The fruit are egg-shaped, large and heavy, with a thick, tough, fibrous exterior enclosing the nut, which is round with a hard shell that protects the flesh and water. The fruit develop from the fertilised female flowers, growing in clusters at the top of the palm. When young they are green or yellow-orange in dwarf varieties, becoming brown when mature, at around nine to ten months after fruit-set, then self-detach and fall to the ground where they land with a thud.
The immature fruit contains coconut water, which is a sweet, refreshing and nutritious drink. The water is accessed by boring or cutting open a hole through the fibrous exterior and hard inner shell. After draining or drinking the water, the young coconut is split open to access the immature jelly-like flesh, which is then usually scooped out and eaten fresh.
As the coconut matures on the palm the immature flesh hardens and its oil content increases. At the same time, the dry matter content of the water decreases, along with its nutritional value.
The flesh of the mature nut yields coconut cream and milk, which are widely used in both savoury and sweet dishes, including curries, rice dishes, custards, confectionery, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. To make the cream or milk the finely shredded or grated flesh is mixed with water then pressed and strained. The first-pressing yields the cream and subsequent pressings the milk.
The mature flesh also yields up to 65% of an edible oil, which starts to solidify at temperatures below 25 °C. The oil is extracted by cold pressing the mature, dried flesh or by boiling the milk and skimming off the oil, which is the more traditional or home-based method.
Coconut oil is used mostly for cooking, particularly frying. It has also been successfully tested as a bio-diesel. The leftover seed-cake is reported to have a protein content of about 20% and a residual oil content of about 6%. It is a common ingredient in commercial livestock feeds, including some fish feeds.
Coconut flour, a high fibre, high protein flour, suitable for baking and cooking is made by finely grinding the white part of the dried mature flesh after the milk or oil is extracted. Desiccated coconut, made by shredding the white part of the dried flesh and coconut chips, made by thinly slicing the dried flesh, are used to add flavour and texture to baked goods and confectionery.
Coconut extract or essence, a coconut flavouring, is made by soaking the thoroughly dried grated or diced flesh in an unflavoured colourless alcohol, such as vodka, for at least four weeks (preferably in a sealed glass jar shaken once a day and stored away from sunlight). It can be kept over a long period and is used to add a coconut flavour to food, particularly to baked goods and drinks. It is found for sale in supermarkets, usually in the baking products section.
Sap collected by tapping the flower-stalk, after it is cut, is slowly boiled and reduced into palm sugar or is naturally fermented to produce coconut vinegar or 'Toddy', an alcoholic beverage. On a commercial level, the sap and the nectar from the flowers are fermented and distilled to make 'Arrack', an alcoholic spirit sold under different brand names in the region.
Coconut jam or Kaya jam, as its known in Southeast Asia and much beloved in the region, is made by combining the sweet sap with coconut milk, eggs and pandan extract (from Pandanus amaryllifolius). It is mostly spread on toast and buns eaten for breakfast.
The flowers are a major source of nectar and pollen, providing honeybees with year-round forage in many areas and almost continuous honey production for beekeepers. The honey is described as white to colourless when pure or greenish-yellow when adulterated, thin, with a pleasant flavour and starts to granulate after around three months. Yields vary considerably, with the highest yields coming from coastal areas, where yields of up to 80 kgs (176 lbs) per colony per season have been reported.
Activated charcoal, a speciality charcoal used in air filtration systems and the precious metals industry is made from the hard brown shell of mature nuts after the flesh has been removed. The shell is also cut, shaped and polished into pieces of wearable jewellery and other artisan craft.
Coir, a natural fibre stripped from the husk has long been woven to make rope, cordage and mats, including doormats, as well as being a choice ingredient in potting mixes for plants such as orchids that require a light, quick-draining root mix. Pieces of husk not made into coir are used as mulch, sometimes as a growing medium, such as when growing Anthuriums (Anthurium andraeanum) for cut-flowers. The husk can also be shaped into a floor-polishing brush and is widely used as kindling for starting fires.
The trunk produces a lightweight to heavy wood, in the 100 to 900 kgs per cubic meter range but is low in natural resistance to decay and rot, which limits its use outdoors. The outer portion of the bottom 6 m (20 ft) of the stem, which has the highest density wood, is sawn into planks used mostly for interior flooring, usually laid in a parquet pattern. The finished wood is brown to dark brown with a decorative grain, wears well and takes on a good polish.
The leaves are used in basketry and other weaving craft, including making them into woven sun hats, floor mats, privacy screens and packaging for food and gifts.
Coconut is commonly planted as a windbreak and to help minimise soil and sand erosion in coastal areas, as well as for its graceful, iconic form, which contributes to the tropical feel of any garden or landscape.
Water ladles made from coconut shells (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
The oil extracted from the flesh of mature nuts is a good source of energy. It is also reported to contain good amounts of Vitamins B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B6 (Pyridoxine), C (Ascorbic acid) and E, as well as Folate, Iron and Phosphorus.
Coconut oil is widely used in beauty and skincare products, particularly soaps, shampoos, skin creams and moisturisers. It is also used as a massage oil and as a hair tonic, particularly in India and Southeast Asia.
Coconut water, from the young fruit, is taken as a kidney tonic in the Caribbean and is prescribed in traditional medicine in India for the treatment of urinary problems. It is reported to contain a high amount of Potassium, up to 3 grams per litre or close to 100% of the daily recommended intake for adults.
Grows and fruits naturally in humid tropical lowland climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 4500 mm and a dry season of 5 months or less.
Coconut palms flower and fruit poorly or not at all in areas with cool winters and are more susceptible to disease in dry, sub-humid or very humid climates, generally areas with annual rainfall outside of the 1200 to 4500 mm range, or with a pronounced dry season.
However, it is productive in areas with a pronounced dry season if the roots have access groundwater, such as in parts of Mumbai, in India. And, it does equally well in areas with annual rainfall below 1200 mm if irrigated, such as in Salalah, Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India, which receives only 600 mm of rainfall annually.
New plants are started from seed, usually by planting mature nuts which have fallen to the ground and sprouted.
It performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 and on sites with full sun exposure. It has good tolerance to wind, salt spray, soil salt and periodic flooding but is intolerant of slow-draining or waterlogged soils.
Coconut palms starting flowering and producing coconuts when around three to four years old and a mature coconut palm can produce up to one hundred coconuts per year. Yields start to decline when the palm is over thirty-five years old.
Both the young and mature fruit are buoyant, helped by their fibrous, waterproof husk and by air trapped in the nut cavity. This enables their dispersal over long sea distances to new shores where they may eventually become established. However, this type of dispersal is limited to coastal areas and it requires human intervention for dispersal into inland areas.
It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA) but is discouraged from planting in South Florida.
The large and heavy fruit fall to the ground, sometimes from a great height and can cause serious personal injury or damage to property.
Pollen released by male flowers is known to cause allergies in some people.
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