For millennia, the coconut, the 'prince of palms', was central to the lives of Polynesian and Asian peoples; fruits were portable food and drink, whilst the stems and leaves were shelter, fuel and transport. In the west, coconuts were more exotic. The sixteenth-century English herbalist John Gerard emphasised that polished coconut shells, traced with silver, were novelties for the wealthy. In Edwardian Britain, coconut shies became commonplace fairground entertainment. Today, coconut palm-fringed beaches are advertising clichés.
The coconut palm has a smooth, slender, curved, grey trunk, up to 30 m tall, surmounted with a rosette of leaves, each of which may up to be 6 m long. Coconut flowers are tightly clustered together among the leaves. Coconut palms produce as many as 70 head-sized fruits per year, with fruits weighing more than one kilogramme each.
The wall of the fruit has three layers: a waterproof outer layer, a fibrous middle layer and a hard inner layer. The thick, fibrous middle layer produces coconut fibre (coir), which is used for making rope, matting, bristles and even peat substitutes. The woody innermost layer (shell), the familiar coconut, surrounds the seed. The shell, with its three prominent 'eyes', gives coconut its scientific name, Cocos, meaning 'mask' or 'monkey face'.
Inside the shell are the nutrients needed by the developing seed. Initially, the endosperm is a sweetish liquid (coconut water), which is widely drunk; it is also a source of plant growth hormones and can be used in emergency blood transfusions. As the fruit matures, the coconut water solidifies forming brilliant white, fat-rich, edible flesh. Dried coconut flesh (copra) is made into coconut fat and coconut milk, for cooking, cosmetics and soap.
Coconuts are great maritime voyagers and coastal colonizers. The large, energy-rich fruits are buoyant and salt-tolerant, but remain viable only for about 110 days. Literally cast on to desert island shores, with little more than sand to grow in, coconut seeds must germinate and root. The air pocket in the seed, created as the endosperm solidifies, and the fibrous fruit wall that provided buoyancy en voyage, protects the embryo and provides a moisture-retentive rooting medium to help the seedling establish itself quickly.
During the nineteenth century, coconut oil and coir evolved into items of international commerce. Moreover, at much the same time, a derivative of coconut fat, glycerine, acquired strategic importance, as Alfred Nobel introduced the world to his nitroglycerine-based invention - dynamite.
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Edmondson CH 1941. Viability of coconut after floating in sea. Occasional Papers of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History, Hawaii 16: 293-304.
Gunn BF et al. 2011. Independent origins of cultivated coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World tropics. PLoS ONE 6: e21143.