The coconut tree is one of the most useful trees in the world.

Multiple cultures refer to it in some form as the “tree of life.”  It provides food, fuel, cosmetics, folk medicine and building materials, alcoholic beverages, regulation of digestion properties, and shade, among many other uses. The coconut meat and the coconut milk extracted from it, and the coconut water it contains, form an important part of the diets of many people in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world.

As a demonstration of the coconut’s importance, a number of cultures feature it in their creation mythology.  For example, the CHamoru people of the Marianas Islands describe the reason for the coconut, which was a pivotal part of their early creation myths as follows:

Long ago there was a family who had a beautiful young daughter who was admired by everyone in the tribe.  She was giving and caring to all, and she would often sacrifice her needs and wants to make sure that the people had everything they needed.

One day the girl became very thirsty. She wanted to drink the juice from a special fruit that she had imagined in her head. Everyone tried to find the fruit she described, because they wanted to do something nice to pay her back for how caring she was to the tribe, but to no avail. It could not be found. 

 Soon the girl became very ill and died.

The father buried the girl on a hill overlooking the village. He placed a beautiful headstone on her grave and the people covered it with many beautiful flowers to express their sorrow, and to show their love.

One day the villagers noticed a strange plant growing on the girl’s grave. They thought it was magic and built a shelter to protect it. Five years after the plant appeared, it had grown 20 feet tall.  Suddenly, strange looking fruits appeared. One of the fruits dropped to the ground and cracked open.

The chief called on the father of the dead girl to eat the strange fruit, but he refused. He called his wife to eat the fruit. She said it was sweet and chewy and called it coconut. All of the people tried it, and they loved it so much that they found many ways to use every part of the final gift that they had been given by the wonderful girl.

The coconut played a critical role in the migrations of the Austronesian peoples. They provided a portable source of both food and water, allowing Austronesians to survive long sea voyages to colonize new islands as well as establish long-range trade routes. Mature coconuts with the husk intact can be stored for three to five months at normal room temperature. The entire tree can be used to fill most of the needs of a migratory people settling the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean.  The trunks can make lumber for boats and shelter, as well as the soft center wood creating what we now know as Hearts of Palm, which you may these days encounter on an expensive appetizer salad at a high-end restaurant.  The fibrous husks of the coconut can be used to make rope and the woody center used for scraping and cutting tools. The leaves and fronds can be used to weave baskets, sails, and roofing material for huts, and the pounded fibers can be used in a number of different applications.  Both husk and leaves can be used for fuel. In some cases, the halves of the coconut husks can be used to simulate the sounds of a horse, but in temperate zones, it must have been carried there by an African Swallow gripping it by the husk or carrying it on a line between two of them.  This is a very rare occurrence, though, because African Swallows are non-migratory.

The germination process requires very little work, as any coconut in its husk that is left alone long enough where it falls will eventually grow a tree on that spot.  5-6 years later, it will be 20-30 feet tall, and it will begin to fruit.  It can survive on rainwater and saltwater.

A 3.5 ounce serving of raw coconut flesh supplies 1,480 kilojoules (354 kilocalories) of food energy and 33 grams of total fat, with its saturated fat containing mostly good cholesterol. It supplies 15 grams of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of protein. Both the meat and the water contain some micronutrients and electrolytes in significant amounts including the dietary minerals, manganese, copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.  The pies that can be made from coconut meat and coconut milk seem to be enough to sustain a group of castaways on an island who can invent a record player, but who also cannot fix a medium size hole in a boat.

Coconut meat is widely used in cuisine around the world, especially in the tropical regions of Africa and Southeast Asia, India, and Australia. Most curry dishes are dependent on coconut milk to provide a creamy consistency and a sweetness that combines well with spices to flavor a plethora of dishes.

The coconut is an example of a very low maintenance crop that provides enormous food and utility benefits.  Without them, many tropical and sub-tropical civilizations would have been either very different, or never existed at all.  Plus, as people who enjoy Thai soup such as Tom Ka Gai (which may indeed be the best soup on the planet), we would be sad.  Very sad indeed.

Tony Moir is a cyborg who holds world records in synchronized luge and panda steeplechase. Or maybe he isn’t. But he lives in San Francisco with his lovely wife and three outstanding sons.

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