The origin of the coconut is the subject of much debate. One of the earliest mentions dates back to the One Thousand and One Nights story of Sinbad the Sailor, who is known to have bought and sold coconuts during his fifth voyage.
Coconut palms are grown in more than 80 countries of the world with a total production of 61 million tonnes per year. Coconut trees are very hard to establish. The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight, regular rainfall and high humidity for optimum growth, so colonising shorelines of the tropics is straightforward.
The extent of cultivation in the tropics is threatening a number of habitats, such as mangroves. New leaves do not open well, and older leaves may become desiccated; fruit also tends to be shed.
Technically and botanically, a coconut is a fibrous one-seeded drupe, known as a dry drupe, which means that it has a hard shell encased in a fibrous outer layer. When the shell is cracked open, it reveals a fleshy white meat and a liquid that is known as coconut water. Cracking open the shell is no mean feat; a number of techniques are used, ranging from baking coconuts to make them brittle to dropping them onto sharp rocks in an attempt to wedge open a crack in the shell. However, when using loose definitions, the coconut can be: a fruit, a nut, and a seed.
The coconut is known for its great versatility as seen in the many uses of its different parts. Coconuts are part of the daily diets of many people. Coconuts are different from other fruits because they contain a large quantity of “water”. When immature they are known as tender-nuts or jelly-nuts and may be harvested for drinking.
The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble the coconut you find growing on a coconut palm. An untouched coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is typically smooth with a greenish colour, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed. Generally speaking, when you buy a coconut at the supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are removed and what you see is the endocarp.
When mature, coconuts still contain some water and can be used as seed nuts or processed to give oil from the kernel, charcoal from the hard shell and coir from the fibrous husk. The endosperm is initially in its nuclear phase suspended within the coconut water. As development continues, cellular layers of endosperm deposit along the walls of the coconut, becoming the edible coconut “flesh”.
When dried, the coconut flesh is called copra. The oil and milk derived from it are commonly used in cooking and frying; coconut oil is also widely used in soaps and cosmetics. The clear liquid coconut water within is a refreshing drink. The husks and leaves can be used as material to make a variety of products for furnishing and decorating. It also has cultural and religious significance in many societies that use it.