PLANT OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Coconut Palm, Coco Palm, Coconut Tree
Scientific name: Cocos nucifera
Explanation of scientific name:
- Portuguese for monkey,
in reference to the face that appears on the stripped nut.
A young coconut palm seedling.
Note how the seedling has emerged from a partially buried fruit.
|Coconuts nearly ripened on a Coconut palm.|
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:
you could count the stars, then you could count all the ways the coconut
"He who plants a coconut tree, plants vessels and clothing, food
and drink, a habitation for himself, and a heritage for his children."
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.
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.
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.
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
A coconut fruit floating in seawater.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.