The coconut is probably the most beloved exotic fruit, especially when consumed during the summer. It’s a thirst-quenching fruit that gives us a great sensation of freshness. It originates from some tropical areas but is now widespread in many regions of the planet. In this article, we’ll get to know the botanical characteristics of the coconut palm. Additionally, we’ll discover the methods for harvesting and opening coconuts and all the possible uses of these fruits. The coconut is not limited to consumption as a fresh fruit; it has various applications in pastries, cosmetics, and industry.
Let’s first explore its origin and distribution.
The Coconut: Origin and Distribution
The coconut palm, scientifically known as Cocos nucifera, is a tree species in the botanical family of Arecaceae, genus Cocos. It is universally known simply as the coconut. Due to its high tolerance for sandy and saline soils, this palm often grows in the upper part of tropical beaches. Nevertheless, plantations can also be found inland. It is a very important fruit for the economies of the countries of origin, primarily harvested by small cultivators. The origin and subsequent domestication have been subjects of scientific discussions, and there is no universally accepted agreement on this matter. One widely supported theory suggests that the coconut originated in the Melanesian region of the Pacific Ocean. From there, it spread in prehistory to Asia and then to East Africa, Panama, the Atlantic coasts of America, and Africa. The coconut palm also grows in some subtropical regions, such as Florida. Undoubtedly, human activities and transoceanic trade facilitated the widespread distribution of this fruit. However, many botanists believe that since coconuts can float in the sea, they might have been transported by ocean currents over considerable distances without losing the ability to germinate. Today, the main exporting countries of coconuts are the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Mexico.
The coconut palm is a tree that can reach considerable heights, up to 30 meters. The trunk doesn’t branch and ends with a crown of 25-35 large leaves. These leaves are up to 4–5 meters long and have an enlarged base forming a wide sheath. They are erect in the early years of life and then droop later, formed by very light leaflets. The coconut palm is a monoecious plant, meaning that male and female flowers grow on the same plant. Flowering starts from the age of 6-12 years. There also exist dwarf coconut palms, not exceeding 8-10 meters in height. Coconuts grow under the leaves, thus at the topmost part of the trunk. They appear two weeks after flowering and continue to grow for six months. Young fruits are green, but as they mature, they turn first yellow, then orange, red, and brown. A mature coconut has a maximum length of 20-30 cm and weighs between 1.2 to 2 kg. The fruit consists of an outer skin (epicarp), a fibrous part (mesocarp), and a hard shell (endocarp), enclosing the well-known coconut kernel that we eat fresh. At the center of the fruit is a sweet and milky water, very thirst-quenching: the famous coconut water. At one end of the shell, three softer areas called “eyes” are visible. Young shoots emerge through these areas and then develop into roots. Coconuts appear on the tree from 6 years of age, and the tree bears fruit for about 80 years. Another characteristic of the coconut palm is its continuous fruiting, a feature rarely found in other crops.
Coconuts are harvested in different ways. The classic method used by collectors involves using a rope like a belt around the tree trunk. Feet are used as real stirrups, just like expert and brave climbers. Another technique involves using a long bamboo pole with a knife tied to its end. This way, work can be done from the ground. However, the simplest alternative is to wait for coconuts to fall to the ground and collect them as they fall. A curiosity: in some Southeast Asian areas, monkeys with pig tails are famous for being trained to climb the palm and knock down coconuts.
How to Open a Coconut
The coconut has a very resistant shell and a spherical shape, making it challenging to crack open. To facilitate its opening, it’s good to first pour out the coconut water contained inside. To do this, simply pierce one of the three visible eyes on the shell with a sharp object. The water can be collected by simply pouring it into a glass. At this point, the simplest method to open the coconut is to hit it with a hammer. If skilled, this operation can be done with the coconut suspended in hand. Nonetheless, it’s advisable to find a secure support. Ideally, a stone would be best, but a cutting board is also suitable, as long as you avoid direct table impact. Another way to open a coconut is by giving it sharp blows with a machete. It’s obvious to avoid striking the cutting side. The hard shell will start to crack until it breaks into two halves. However, this method is dangerous, as a cutting tool is used. To avoid risks, a woodworking vice can be used. Place the fruit between the two jaws and tighten until the shell breaks. An additional possibility is to put the coconut in the oven at 150-200 °C for a few minutes after extracting the liquid. The heat of the oven creates cracks in the shell, making it easier to break open. Once the coconut is open, it’s necessary to completely detach the flesh from the shell, which isn’t simple. Knives must be used, and it’s easy to get cut. For reduced risk, it’s advisable to use a small knife. When the flesh is dry, it separates better from the shell.
Uses of Coconuts
The uses of coconuts are varied. The most immediate and well-known is fresh consumption since the fruit is rich in nutritional elements. The flesh of the coconut is composed of 50% water, and the rest is fibers, carbohydrates, sugars, and vegetable fats. It has a high content of minerals like iron, potassium, copper, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, and sodium. Moreover, it’s a fruit rich in amino acids and vitamins, particularly B and C. It’s a recommended food for recovering from weakness or after intense physical activity. As mentioned, the use of coconut water is highly appreciated, especially in the summer. It’s sweet, thirst-quenching, and refreshing. It contains very few fats and calories, is cholesterol-free, and is rich in minerals. It’s recommended for recovery after long exposure to the sun or even as a dietary supplement.
The coconut provides an important vegetable oil. Once you have cut the fruits, you can remove the epicarp and fibrous region and extract the flesh. This is then dried to produce “copra”, from which a saturated oil with a large percentage of lauric acid is derived. This coconut oil is available here. After oil extraction, the residue, called “poonac”, contains almost 20% protein. This substance is an excellent animal feed. Coconut oil is used in the production of margarine, soap, cosmetics, and confectionery. It’s also an excellent substitute for cocoa butter. This oil can even be used to produce biofuels. Another common use is dried and powdered coconut. This is prepared from fresh pulp after a grinding and drying process. It’s a preparation found in pastry and bakery products. Besides its food uses, the coconut has many other applications. The fibrous part (mesocarp), known as “coir”, is transformed into handicraft products such as mats, ropes, brushes, and brooms. Lately, it has found a great application in indoor cultivation as a useful peat substitute.
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