“The Tree of Life” - Coconuts and Copra
The life history of a coconut tree
The vegetation on the islands and coasts of the South Pacific is dominated by the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). All of us are familiar with the typical “Robinson Crusoe-style” desert island – a mound of golden sand with a solitary palm tree growing on it, and in fact, this is not just a picture book scenario, coconut palms really do grow on islands like that -the coconuts tolerance to the salt environment and poor sandy soil is incredible. Coconuts can float for thousands of miles until they are cast up onto a sandy shore. After lying quiescent for a while, in the heat of the tropical sunshine, the coconut eventually sprouts into life. Roots sprout out of two of the eyes in the nut, plunging down into the sand, seeking water and nutrients. Through the third eye, a green shoot grows upwards towards the sunlight. Once established, the embryo palm grows rapidly, and within five to six years the coconut will have matured into a graceful palm tree.
Palmae, the palm family, to which the coconut belongs, is one of the oldest and most diverse of the plant families. Palms have many botanical characteristics such as a woody trunk, perennial growth, leaves which are folded like a fan and the production of a single ‘seed leaf’ which, along with grasses, lilies and other families classifies them as monocotyledons. There have been sixty other species under the genus Cocos, but the coconut palm stands by itself and is monotypic - meaning that within the genus Cocos only one species, nucifera, is recognized. Consequently, every coconut palm in the world is taxonomically the same species, which probably makes it most abundant single food tree in existence. The distribution of the coconut palm extends over most of the tropical islands and coasts. In South America however it has been recorded as far south as 27° and in North America, as far north as 25°.
Two major classes of coconut palm are typically recognized on the basis of stature: tall and dwarf. The ones most commonly planted for commercial purposes are the tall varieties, which are slow to mature and first flower six to ten years after planting. They produce medium-to-large size nuts and have a life span of sixty to seventy years. The dwarf varieties may have originated as a mutation of tall types. The dwarf variety may grow to a height of twenty-five to thirty feet and begin flower after three years, when they are only about three feet tall. Their life span is only about thirty years. Although highly difficult to grow, the dwarf varieties are valued because they bear fruit early and are resistant to the lethal “yellowing disease”.
The coconut palm is not simply an attractive addition to tropical islands and coasts, it is one of the most valuable plants to man. In Sanskrit the coconut palm is called “kalpa vriksha”, which roughly translated means “Tree of Life”
On most small islands in the South Pacific for example, the islanders depend on the coconut palm, not just as a means of income, but also for providing food and shelter. In fact, in Polynesia especially almost every part of the tree is used for something.
The fibrous trunk produces a wood known as porcupine wood, which is prime building material, and the huge frondy leaves are woven together to produce roof thatches, which last up to three or four years. When the fronds are stripped they can be used for lashing logs together, making baskets, mats and many other household items. The fibrous husk of the coconut known as “coir”– which is there to cushion the inner nut when it falls several meters to the ground, produces fibers for a kind of rope called “sennit”. The meat and liquid obtained from the fruit are used for a variety of foods and beverages, and the empty shells are made into household utensils such as spoons and bowls. The empty shells can also be used to make an excellent charcoal, which works as a cooking fuel and is also used in the production of gas masks and air filters.
A coconut takes a full year to develop from a flower into a ripe nut. During this time the fruit of the coconut passes through four food phases;
(1) Even before the nut is ripe, when it is bright green in colour, the juice or milk can be drunk. It is sweet and refreshing, and one green coconut can contain up to 1 liter of milk. Green coconut milk has the advantage of being perfectly sealed in a hygienic container and in some places it is therefore used in place of sterile water for medicinal purposes, or with salt added, for the rehydration of fever or gastroenteritis cases.
(2) After the green stage the nut begins to ripen – on the outside, it turns slowly brown, and on the inside a thin white layer of meat or pulp begins to develop – this can be eaten and has a consistency rather like that of a soft boiled egg.
(3) If the nut remains on the tree it continues to ripen, the outside becomes harder and the meaty inner lining thickens and hardens while the milk turns to tasteless water. The mature pulp can be shredded at this stage and the fresh meat used in various dishes, or the shells are split and the meat is left to dry in the sun, becoming “copra” from which coconut oil is extracted.
A germinating coconut
(4) If a coconut is allowed to fully ripen on the tree, and then falls onto a suitable surface, it will start to germinate; this forms the last food phase. As the coconut germinates a white sponge-like ball develops within the shell, absorbing the liquid and hard meat. The sponge can be eaten. It is sweet and is, in taste and texture, rather like spun sugar candy. Care must be taken with this part of the fruit however, because after a certain point in its development it becomes poisonous.
A more exotic product of the coconut palm is used in “millionaires salad”. This is made from the hearts of the newly sprouted embryo palm trees. Extracting the heart kills the tree – but this is often done when thinning of new growth is required.
The making of Copra
Copra is the local south pacific name for dried sections of the meaty inner lining of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It is the principal commercial product derived from the coconut palm, and is used primarily as a source of coconut oil. The resulting residue, coconut oil cake, is used as livestock feed. Coconut oil was introduced as a source of edible fat in northern Europe in the 1860’s because of a shortage of dairy fats. Early in the 20th century it became known in the United States. Western Europe now imports about half a million tons annually, principally from the Philippines, but it is also an important export in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), Mozambique, Malaysia, and the Pacific Islands.
The economy of many small islands in the Marquesas and Tuamotus for example, is heavily dependent on the production of copra. Harvesting copra is a tedious, beak-breaking business.The ripe coconuts are split with a machete and laid out to dry in the sun.
Split coconuts drying in the sun.
The meat is then scraped out and dried once more on raised wooden platforms, which protects the meat from land crabs. On the atolls, the coconut forests are divided into “parcels” so that each family has sufficient trees from which to harvest a crop. In French Polynesia the price of copra is kept artificially high by subsidies from Tahitian government, this is in an attempt to keep people on the smaller islands by providing them with a worthwhile income. At the moment, Polynesian islanders are paid three times what the copra is actually worth.
In the villages, after the copra is harvested, it is packed into burlap bags, weighed and recorded in the local shopkeepers ledger. The shopkeeper often acts as an intermediary, giving credit at the shop in exchange for the crop, which is eventually shipped to Tahiti on “copra boats”.
A man and his young son working on their copra harvest.
To remove the oil, copra is pulverized between rollers, steamed, and pressed at a pressure of about 500 kg per sq cm (about 6500 lb per sq in). High-quality copra usually contains about 60 to 65 percent oil. The remaining residue is utilized to feed livestock. The raw coconut oil is subsequently refined, either by the producing country or by the importer. Coconut oil makes up about 20 percent of all vegetable oils used in the world. It is a common ingredient in margarines, vegetable shortenings, salad oils, and confections. Coconut oil is also used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents, and shampoos because it has high levels of lauric acid, an ingredient that gives soap a quick-lathering property. Another big market for coconut oil is in the production of cosmetics. It can also be added to glues, epoxies and lacquers to provide flexibility.