Palmae (Palm Family) (previously Arecaceae)
Forms and Subspecies
Numerous varieties and cultivars are grown in the tropics and subtropics (Stewart 1994, 88*). There are cultivars for ornamental purposes that have only a short trunk and develop inedible, small yellow fruits. One variety with green fruits is known as Cocos nucifera var. viridis. Only the tall-growing varieties (Cocos nucifera var. typica Nar.) are easily distinguishable from the dwarf forms (Cocos nucifera var. nana[Griff.] Nar.) (Franke 1994, 240*).
Cocos nana Griff.
Coconut, coconut palm, coco nut tree, coco palm, cocotero (Spanish), cocotier (French), cocus, dab (Bengali), green gold, ha’ari, hach kokoh, khopra (Hindi), kôkô, kokoh, kokosnußpalme, kokospalme, kuk, kuk-anâ (Ka’apor), mabang, mbang ntnag, naral (Marathi), narial (Hindi), narikela, narikelamu, narikera, nariyal (Sanskrit), narkol (Bengali), niu (Samoa), obi, ogop, palmeer-baum, palmenbaum, pol, suphala (Sanskrit), tenga, tengu (Kannada), tenkai, tennaimaram (Tamil), thengu, thenna (Malayalam)
In Europe, the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is regarded as a symbol of the tropics.
The coconut palm produces the inebriating palm wine in the interior of the young leaf shoots. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)
Coconut trees have been used culturally in India for three thousand to four thousand years. They first appear in European literature in the sixth century and became an officinal agent in Europe with the adoption of Arabic medicine (Schneider 1974, 1:341*). They were known by the names nuces indicae, carya indica, and Indian nut. The name cocos means “grimace” and was given to the palm by the Spanish because of the “eye” where the nut is attached to the fruit (Bremness 1995, 49*).
In the older literature, the coconut palm was often characterized as “the most useful of all trees” because every part of it can be utilized (Meister 1677, 43*). This palm is a source of food, medicine, fibers, copra, and other raw materials as well as various inebriating beverages. Palm wine was even mentioned in ancient Sanskrit literature.
Culturally and economically, the coconut palm is one of the most important plants of the tropics. Coconut oil provides 8% of the world’s oil and fat supply. The oil is used to make a variety of products, including margarine (Udupa and Tripathi 1983, 64).
Now pantropical, the coconut tree apparently came from Asia or Melanesia (Zander 1994, 194*). However, there were already coconut trees in Colima (Mexico) when the first Europeans arrived there (Dressler 1953, 129*).
Coconut trees represent the typical vegetation associated with the beaches of the islands of the Indian Ocean, India, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Melanesia.
The natural propagation and distribution of coconut palms occurs through the coconuts, which fall into the water, are carried away, and are then washed up in suitable locations. The palm thrives in sand, preferably at or near the beach; it can tolerate up to 1% salt in the groundwater. For cultivation, the fruits can be laid out (in areas rich in rain, under a roof) with the narrow side facing down. Up to half of the coconut can be lightly buried in sand. After four to five months, the fruit will have developed roots and formed a shoot. After six to twelve months, the seedling can be planted in the desired location. The germination period can be shortened by wrapping the coconut in a plastic bag left somewhat open at the top (Rehm and Espig 1996, 87f.*).
The slender, slightly leaning coconut palm can grow up to 30 meters in height. It develops pinnate leaves that can be as long as 6 meters. It has cream-colored panicles and large, solitary fruits (coconuts) that hang in thick clusters between the leaf stalks.
The coconut palm can be easily confused with the king coconut (Cocos butyracea), assuming that this is in fact a separate species.
—Coconut milk (coconut water)
—Bleeding sap (toddy); palm wine (suri, tuaco, vino de coco)
Preparation and Dosage
The first detailed discussion (1677) of the manner in which palm wine is obtained from the coconut palm provides a precise description of the method that is still used throughout Southeast Asia and on the islands of the Indian Ocean:
Now follows the usefulness of the noble palmeer wine. . . . This wine, which is the juice of this tree, is called major by the inhabitants of Java, tuaco by those of the Malabars, and surii by the Dutch, and is tapped from the tree in the following manner: While the flower is still growing, one cuts the same at the front with a broad knife made for this purpose and places such shortened little branches in a piece of bamboo (this bamboo is a hollow tube almost as wide as a leg, which the inhabitants of India generally use to build their houses) or in a narrow pot, open at the top, which is standing in the sun. When they are visited by their warders, also known as divitores, [they] . . . use several steps that have been chopped in to climb quickly up. They pour the sura into a pober or Indian gourd attached to their persons at least twice every 24 hours, that is, early for what was collected during the night, and evenings, for what was collected during the day. . . . This sura or juice, when drunk immediately while fresh, is delicious and good and sweet beyond measure, especially that which comes from those grown around Cannanor or in the Kingdom of Calicuth, on the coast of Cannera and Malabar, which tastes quite agreeable, almost as sweet as a newly pressed cider. But if you drink a little too much of this, you will very easily get drunk from it. (Meister 1677, 49*)
As a result of fermentation and enzymatic processes, palm wine changes considerably during the course of a single day:
The palm wine that is collected in the morning tastes like sweet cider until about 10 o’clock, however with the oily aftertaste of the coconut, it then begins to ferment and at around 12 o’clock foams over the edge of the bottle or bamboo vessel in which it is being kept in the open. In the evening, toward 3 o’clock, it is then an inebriating drink, a “fire water,” as the natives call it. . . . If the palm grower wishes to hinder the fermentation, he takes some calcium from shells and mixes this into the palm juice. (Schröter, in Hartwich 1911, 627*)
If the palm wine is allowed to stand for a longer time, it ferments into palm vinegar. Production of the bleeding sap can be stimulated and increased by hitting the inflorescence with a special wooden stick or bone.
The alcohol that is distilled from the flower sap (toddy, tonwack) is known as arrak (Fernando 1970). On the Marquesas Islands, fermented coconut milk is distilled into a type of brandy (alcohol). On Rennel Island, one of the southernmost of the Solomon Islands, a drink obtained from coconuts is known as kava kava ngangi. In spite of its name, the drink contains no Piper methysticum (Holmes 1979).
Coconut flakes are an ingredient in betel quids as well as Oriental joy pills.
In India, coconuts are thrown into the sea as offerings to placate the spirits of the monsoon. In Gujarat, the palm is venerated as a familial deity. Muslims toss pieces of coconut and limestone over the heads of newlyweds to dispel evil spirits. The Bengalis believe that coconuts have eyes and are able to see if someone is lying beneath the palm so they will not fall on that person’s head (Gandhi and Singh 1991, 65*). Because coconuts are as large as a person’s head, they are offered to the bloodthirsty goddess Bhadrakali (“auspicious black [goddess]”), a terrifying manifestation of Shiva’s wife Parvati, in place of real human sacrifices (Gandhi and Singh 1991, 66*).
The Yoruba of Africa believe that at the beginning of creation, the coconut was a pure, loving, and virtuous person who was later transformed into the plant. For this reason, the palm is a sacred tree that is venerated and respected.
Coconut palm wine enjoys great ritual significance, especially in western New Guinea but also in other areas: “Drinking palm wine is part of certain idolatrous ceremonies, but in private life the palm wine drinkers are despised and are not as common as the habitual drunkards are among us” (Schröter, in Hartwich 1911, 627*).
For more on ritual use, see palm wine.
In Southeast Asia, coconuts are made into boxes for tobacco snuff (Meister 1677, 48*). In Oceania, half shells were and still are used to manufacture vessels for drinking kava (cf. Piper methysticum).
The wooden beating sticks—called pudscha—that were used to stimulate juice production were regarded as idols and venerated accordingly (Hartwich 1911, 627*).
Because the coconut palm is a symbol of tropical, South Seas romance, it is depicted on numerous pictures intending to invoke such an ambience. It is possible that there are art objects that were inspired by the use of coconut palm wine, but there are no reports about this.
On Samoa, the coconut is used in a multitude of ways as a remedy for stomach problems, constipation, open wounds, puerperal fever, gonorrhea, inflammations, eye ailments, problems associated with pregnancy, and stings by the very poisonous stonefish (Synanceja spp. and others) (Uhe 1974, 6f.*). It is used in similar manners in the folk medicine of other South Pacific islands. In Polynesia, coconut milk is used as a solvent for medicinal herbs (Whistler 1992, 82).
In India (Karnataka), a tea made from the tender flower buds is drunk every morning for three days to balance out all menstrual irregularities (Bhandary et al. 1995, 157*). The oily exudation of heated coconut shells is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for parasites (Venkataraman et al. 1980). Coconut milk is prescribed for gastritis, stomach ulcers, and heartburn (Udupa and Tripathi 1983, 64).
On the Malay Peninsula, the ground root is administered as an antidote for poisoning with Datura metel (Perry and Metzger 1980, 304*).
The Fang of Central Africa use the bark to obtain a medicine to treat toothaches (Akendengué 1992, 169*).
The use of coconut flakes and meat as aphrodisiacs101 and as treatments for venereal diseases is widespread. In Indonesia, coconut shells are burned and the ashes mixed with wine to treat syphilis (Perry and Metzger 1980, 404*). In Indonesia, a flaccid or sick “Venus rider” would dangle his damaged member through a hole in a fresh coconut and bathe it in the coconut milk to provide it with new vigor or to cure the venereal disease he had acquired (Meister 1677, 46*). In Islamic medicine, the penis is packed in a mush made from fresh coconut meat in order to give it new energy (Moinuddin Chishti 1984, 96*). In the Bahamas, the tender coconut flesh is mixed with nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) and ingested to heal “weakness” (Eldridge 1975, 314*).
Coconut oil, obtained from the dried endo-sperm of the seed, has great significance in the cosmetic industry.
“I [must] mention a kind of bat, which can easily grow as large as a proper, complete hen in its head and hair, long of mouth and short of ears, the wings, as smooth as those of our own bats, are as long as a fathom when you stretch them apart, the Dutch call them suiri-cats, the Portuguese murchsebes, and in the Malay language eansching duack. These monstrous bats, although very rarely seen, often came and hung with their sharp claws on the coconut tree leaves, from which the sura or palm wine is tapped, and inebriate themselves on this to such an extent that they would often remain the entire night until the sun had risen in order to get enough sleep, and could thus be encountered, and I brought down such a one with a good flint rifle, and my slaves then made themselves very merry when they ate this, and I too consumed it out of curiosity, as they are not poisonous but rather taste like the best chicken meat.”
DER ORIENTALISCH-INDIANISCHE KUNST- UND LUSTGÄRTNER [THE ORIENTAL-INDIAN ART AND PLEASURE GARDENER]
(1677, CH. 6, P. 3*)
The plant contains an essential oil, wax, and oil. The bleeding sap, which ferments into palm wine, contains proteins, ashes, 15% sugar (saccharose), and enzymes (Perry and Metzger 1980, 304*; Rehm and Espig 1996, 74, 89*).
The milk of a still-green coconut fruit has been found to contain 1,3-diphenylurea, a compound that stimulates cellular growth (Wong 1970, 110*). Coconut flakes contain proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamin B complex.
Because of its low alcohol content, the palm wine obtained from the bleeding sap—even when consumed in large quantities—has stimulating, almost refreshing and invigorating effects that do, however, tend toward drunkenness. The effects of drinks fermented from the milk are different: “Fermented coconut milk has a high alcohol content: too much will result in toxic symptoms” (Udupa and Tripathi 1983, 64).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Coconuts are available throughout the world wherever fruits and vegetables are sold. On the other hand, palm wine can be obtained only where it is made, as it is quite perishable. Arrak can be obtained throughout Southeast Asia but is only infrequently available in the West.
See also the entries for Areca catechu and palm wine.
Fernando, T. 1970. Arrack, toddy, and Ceylonese nationalism. Ceylon Studies Seminar 9:1–33, Colombo.
Guzmán-Rivas, P. 1984. Coconut and other palm use in Mexico and the Philippines. Principes 28 (1): 20–30.
Holmes, Lowell D. 1979. The kava complex in Oceania. New Pacific 4 (5): 30–33.
Udupa, K. N., and S. N. Tripathi. 1983. Natürliche Heilkräfte. Eltville am Rhein: Rheingauer Verlagsgesellschaft.
Venkataraman, S., T. R. Ramanujam, and V. S. Venkatasubbu. 1980. Antifungal activity of the alcoholic extract of coconut shell—Cocas nucifera L. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:291–93.
Whistler, Arthur. 1992. Polynesian herbal medicine. Lawai, Kauai, Hawaii: National Tropical Botanical Garden.