PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

COCONUT  PALM

 

Common names:        

Coconut Palm, Coco Palm, Coconut Tree

Scientific name:        Cocos nucifera

Explanation of scientific name:   

Cocos     -  Portuguese for monkey, in reference to the face that appears on the stripped nut.     

nucifera  -  nut bearing  

A young coconut palm seedling.

Note how the seedling has emerged from a partially buried fruit.

 

 

Coconuts nearly ripened on a Coconut palm.

Of the more than 1500 species in the Palm family of plants (Palmaceae), the Coconut palm is the best known.  A unique tree, with no really close relatives (it is the only member of the genus Cocos), it is considered to be one of the most useful trees in the world.  A recent study reported 360 contemporary uses for this tree, half of which were for food.  Several Philippine proverbs demonstrate the usefulness of this species:

 "If you could count the stars, then you could count all the ways the coconut serves us."

    "He who plants a coconut tree, plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for himself, and a heritage for his children."

While the coconut can be found growing throughout the tropical regions of the world, its center of origin is not exactly known.  Fossilized coconuts have been found in New Zealand, and the trees have been cultivated for over 4,000 years in India.  This leads most botanists to believe that the species originated somewhere around the Indian Ocean.  The exceptionally wide distribution of coconuts today is due to the influence of humans, having been carried from place to place by explorers and immigrants.  Since the chief means of dispersal in nature is by the nuts floating in water to distant shores, the existence of all inland coconuts is undoubtedly the result of our actions.

The tree is recognized by most people, and is often associated with some pristine beach on a tropical island.  The un-branched trunk can reach 80-100 feet at maturity, topped by a crown of leaves each up to 20 feet in length.  The tree is seldom straight, and often leans because of the wind, fruit load, and instability of the soil.  When four or five years old the tree begins to produce male and female flowers, followed shortly thereafter by fruits (nuts).  The nuts reach full size in about six months, but take almost a whole year to reach full maturity.  A coconut tree usually can be expected to produce 25 nuts a year, with a maximum of 75 under ideal conditions.  The tree's lifespan is approximately 80 to 90 years.

Grown primarily by developing nations, the annual worldwide production is staggering.  An estimated 17 billion nuts are harvested each year from 9 million acres.  The Philippine Islands and India lead the world in production.                                                                     

Some of the more important and/or interesting uses of coconuts are as follows:

Nutmeat:  This firm, white, rich stored food that lines the inside of the seed is very nutritious (one nut has as much protein as 1/4 lb. of beefsteak) and high in calories.  In the United States over 72 million pounds are used each year in candies and confectioneries.

A coconut fruit floating in seawater.

Coconut Oil (Copra Oil):  Extracted from the dried nutmeat of mature seeds, this white, glycerin rich, semi-solid, lard-like fat is stable in air and remains bland and edible for several years.  It is used in soaps, chocolate, candy, ice cream, in baking instead of lard, candles, dyeing cotton, ointments and hair dressings, tooth paste, paints, hydraulic fluids, lubricants, synthetic rubber, plastics, and insecticides.

Coconut Water:  This is the watery fluid contained within immature nuts.  A 5-month old nut will yield about two glassfuls.  It is clear, colorless and contains about two tablespoons of sugar along with vitamins and minerals.  It is so pure and sterile that in World War II both American and Japanese doctors found that in emergencies they could use the coconut water in place of sterile glucose for I.V. solutions.  In plant tissue culturing, coconut water was at one time routinely added to the growing medium because of its wide diversity of nutrients.

Coconut Milk: This white liquid is squeezed from the nutmeat of the coconut seed.  Rich in oils and various nutrients, it is used for sauces and prepared foods.

Growing Point:  There is only one growing point or bud on this tree  -  at its very tip.  It is called the heart and it consists of tightly packed, yellow-white immature leaves about the size of a person's forearm.  Cut from the plant, the heart is the main component of millionaire's salad.  This practice, however, is a terrible waste since the tree will die if the growing point is removed.

Flowers:  Unopened flowers are surrounded by a sheath of modified leaves that resemble burlap.  The sheath is used as a natural cloth for everything from shoes and caps to helmets for soldiers.  If the flowers are bound together tightly to prevent their opening, and then cut at the tips, sap will drip from the wounds at a rate of up to one gallon per day.  The sugar-rich fluid can be boiled down to a syrup that can be used much like maple syrup.  If left standing, the fluid will ferment in a few days to yield an 8% alcohol drink commonly called toddy.  It can be distilled to yield pure alcohol, or left to eventually become vinegar.

Fruit Husk:  The fruit husk is composed of tightly packed fibers known as coir.  If soaked in salt water, they separate and can be woven into a variety of items including rope, twine, mats, rugs, chair and cushion stuffing, and bags.  If ground up to a small particle size, it can be used in soil mixes for greenhouse plants.

Seed Shell:  The inner seed shell is a hard, fine-grained material.  The shells can be fashioned into cups, ladles, pots, eating utensils, buttons, and rings.  Used extensively as a fuel in the tropics, the shells burn essentially smoke free.  When made into a fine charcoal, it has exceptional absorption properties and has been used in gas masks, submarine air purifying systems, and in cigarette filters.

Leaves:  The leaves are used whole for roofs and fences in the tropics.  Thin leaf strips are used to weave clothing and furnishings, while the stiff midribs make cooking skewers, kindling, and arrows.  Bound together, the leaves can be fashioned into brooms and brushes.

Within the past few decades a deadly disease of Coconut Palms has appeared and reached epidemic proportions.  Called Lethal Yellows, it is a virus-like disease (actually a mycoplasma) that can kill a tree in three months.  First discovered in Jamaica, it has spread throughout the Caribbean and beyond.  Only the tall varieties of the species are susceptible, the dwarf varieties are immune.  The tall varieties, however, are the most economically useful.  No cure has been found as of yet, but progress is being made.  If left unchecked, Lethal Yellows could have a devastating effect on the daily lives of millions of people in the tropics that depend on this bountiful tree for the essentials of life.