Come evening and the silhouetted palms took on a different form against the fiery red sky. When the sky turned grey and black during the monsoons and heavy rains lashed with fury, they stood firm and weathered the storm. But they always looked beautiful. They looked beautiful in the farmstead or on the plantations. They looked beautiful around the backwaters and they caught your attention along the beaches. Come to think of it, the coconut palm is of substantial value for the sheer beauty of it’s form and what they do to the landscape. But then the coconut palm is in fact of much greater value than we may imagine.
According to Indian mythology, apart from the divine nectar that would bestow immortality, one of the many other things that came out of the great samudra manthan (churning of the oceans) was a divine tree – Kalpavriksha – that could provide you everything that you wanted or wished for. There are many claims for the identity and present day whereabouts of this tree, but one of the more popular claims – particularly among the people of the coastal regions of India - is that the coconut palm is indeed the kalpavriksha of Indian mythology. Without getting entangled in the controversy, we only need to take a look at the numerous uses of this tree and we will be convinced that the coconut palm is a worthy claimant of being the kalpavriksha.
The coconut palm or Cocos nucifera, belongs to the Arecaceae family. The word Cocos, thought to be of European origin, refers to the three eyes or germinating pores on the dehusked coconut making it resembling a grinning face. Nucifera curiously means nut bearing although the coconut is strictly not a nut and is botanically classified as a drupe, akin to mango, olive, almond and peach. About 90% of the global production comes from 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with Indonesia, Philipines and India being the top 3 producers.
The many uses of coconut
Once the palm starts bearing fruit, the top of the palm fills with flower clusters and
1, Coconut nectar / wine. The sap or nectar from the flower bunch is collected by toddy tappers who climb the palms and make incisions on the flower cluster so that the sap / nectar oozes out. This is collected in an empty pot placed below the flower cluster. The pot is emptied everyday and the nectar consumed immediately or left to ferment to make toddy or coconut wine. The sap is also used to make palm jaggery, which is a kind of unrefined sugar.
2. Tender coconuts : As the name suggests, the fruits are harvested before they are fully mature to extract the coconut water, which is a healthy refreshing summer drink. It has low carbohydrates and is rich in minerals particularly potassium. Moreover it has isotonic properties and is sometimes used as an intravenous fluid in emergencies.
3. Mature coconuts : Once the coconuts are fully ripe, they are harvested and used for a variety of purposes. In the coastal regions the white kernel becomes an important ingredient for most food preparations. Sometimes the kernel is grated and pressed to extract coconut milk, which is used in many curries. The kernel is also dried and sold as dessicated coconut or copra, which can be stored for long periods to be used as a food ingredient when fresh coconut is not available.
4. Coconut Oil : Although it is extracted from the coconut kernel, coconut oil deserves a separate look because it so very different from other oils. For one thing it has the highest level of lauric acid (47%), which is an important constituent of mother’s milk but is absent in other edible oils. Lauric acid gets converted to monolaurin in the human body and protects us with its antiviral, antimicrobial antiprotozoal and antifungal properties. Unfortunately lauric acid being a saturated fat was hitherto thought to be harmful for health and equated with trans fats and other harmful fats, which resulted in coconut oil being discouraged as an edible oil. It is now clear that Coconut oil is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and is therefore a very good cooking medium. This would explain why it has been used for hundreds of years in the coastal regions. Not only was it used for cooking but also used as hair oil with excellent results and also for applying on the face and body to tone up the complexion. It is no wonder that coconut oil is used in the soap and cosmetic industries.
5. Other uses : Coconut palm provides a whole range of other products and byproducts that touch every aspect of life :
- coconut shells are used for making a variety of tools and handicrafts. It is also used as fuel and for making high-grade activated charcoal.
- coconut husk can be used as a dish sponge for washing dishes and also converted to coir which is then used for a large number of products like ropes, mats, doormats and stuffing for mattresses. The coir industry is big!
- coconut fronds are made use of in many ways. The midrib is removed from the leaves and used for making brooms. The leaves are woven to prepare roofing sheets for thatched huts. I remember as a child weaving a pair of leaves to make a fairly decent ball that we then used for a friendly game of throw ball.
- the trunk is used to make small bridges over minor streams in the villages and also for house construction.
There are many other applications but this list illustrates the range that makes the coconut palm truly deserving to be considered the kalpavriksha – the tree that gives you everything.