The Coconut Palm: Queen of the Tropics

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Masses of tall coconut palms looking up into a blue sky with high clouds
Coconut palms grow wild in almost all tropical countries. Image: milivigerova

The coconut palm is ubiquitous to most tropical countries. A popular vision of the tropics is lounging by the beach while drinking from a fresh coconut. But that’s not all a coconut palm is good for. For those living in tropical regions, the entire coconut palm can be indispensable to their lives.

The coconut palm goes by several different common names and nicknames in different countries, earning titles such as ‘Queen of the Tropics’ and ‘Mother Tree’. People in these countries often use the flesh and juice of the coconut fruit as part of festivities and worship ceremonies. But by far, the one nickname that suits it the best is ‘Tree of Life’.

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Of course, coconut palms are not trees. What’s the difference? Palms are large, woody herbs, and are more closely related to bamboo, grass, and bananas. They lack the annual rings that you typically see in a tree after cutting it down.

So why would a coconut palm be called a Tree of Life? Simple. You can use every part of the coconut palm and not let anything go to waste. For those living in the tropics, just having access to a couple of coconut palms can be beneficial due to their versatility, as you can use everything from their roots up to the very tip of their leaves.

Looking up into the crown of a tall golden coconut palm showing bunches of ripening coconuts.
Coconut palms produce their large fruit prolifically throughout the year. Image: Jason Goh

First off, let’s start with the part that everyone knows and loves: the coconut fruit. And no, this is not a nut. In botany, it is known as a drupe, or, in layman’s terms, a stone fruit. There are many ways to consume the coconut fruit. By breaking it open, you have access to the sweet, refreshing juice in the middle. And if you want something more substantial to fill you up, simply scoop the coconut meat out with the use of a spoon.

In many tropical countries you can see traditional carts by the roadside that sell fresh coconut juice. They either have a huge jar filled with coconut juice and meat ready for you to enjoy, or they’ll break open a fresh coconut fruit right in front of you. Either way, it’s always a good sight to see, especially when you’re feeling dehydrated after walking around in the tropical heat and humidity.

On top of that, coconut juice is like Mother Nature’s own sports drink with many nutrients and minerals. It gives you energy, provides hydration, has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, and restores balance to the electrolytes inside your body.

Besides enjoying the fruit raw, plenty of cuisines make use of coconut fruit as an ingredient. You can use the coconut meat either fresh or dry in different cuisines. If you want to taste the coconut flavour even more, you can produce coconut milk from the coconut meat and use that when making stews, soups, and curries. Cooks in countries like the Philippines, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore all make use of the coconut fruit in one form or another in different dishes and desserts.

An open coconut on a white background showing the white meat inside.
Coconut meat is used in a wide variety of local dishes throughout the tropics: Image: Hans

Coconut milk and coconut cream are staples in Thai cuisine. Some of their dishes that make use of these two are tom yam kha kai, khao tum mud, gluay buat chee, and khanom tuay, among others. In Filipino cuisine, some of the dishes that make use of coconut milk are ‘Bicol Express’, ginataang manok, and halo-halo. While in Malaysia, nasi lemak is the country’s signature dish that uses coconut milk.

Coconut cream, coconut butter, coconut jam, coconut oil, and so many other ingredients for culinary uses all come from coconut meat.

Surrounding the coconut meat is the coconut shell, the hardest part of the coconut that protects the coconut flesh and juice. Because of how hard and durable it is, you can use the coconut shells as bowls to eat out of or as a makeshift bird feeder in your garden. Some even turn it into pots for their plants, making it eco-friendly. Other products that you can make out of the coconut shell are baskets, ladles, candle holders, paperweights, and much more.

Besides using it for ornamental crafts, people sometimes discard the coconut shell thinking it lacks any other practical use. But nowadays, it’s being looked at as an alternative source of fuel. Coconut shells can be turned into charcoal briquettes, perfect for when you want to have a barbecue on the beach.

A coconut on a dark floor showing the brown fibrous husk around the nut.
The coconut fibre around the coconut husk is used to produce a wide range of useful products. Image: dmyear2016

Surrounding the coconut shell is the coconut husk which is made of coconut fibre. The fibre also goes by the name coir, which means rope. There are two types. There is the white coconut fibre that comes from unripe, green coconuts. And secondly there is the brown coconut fibre that comes from mature brown coconuts.

People in ancient times traditionally made ropes out of coconut fibre because of how sturdy and abundant it was. It also has the added benefit of not sinking when thrown into the water, making it perfect for shipping vessels.

Later on, they started discovering other ways to use the coconut fibre. They turned the white coconut fibre into fishing nets, fine brushes, and many more. The brown coconut fibre was, and still is, used to make tougher and stronger products like rugs, doormats, sacks, and upholstery padding. It’s thick and durable while having resistance to wear and tear due to its high abrasion strength.

You can also make use of brown coconut fibre for agricultural and horticultural purposes. Adding coconut fibre to the soil aids moisture retention. Using coconut fibre instead of peat moss is more environmentally friendly due to how renewable it is. But just like peat moss, it helps to retain nutrients in the soil for your plants to use.

View across a small lake of rural homes on a tropical island thatched with coconut palm leaves.
Coconut palm leaves are widely used in rural areas to build homes and shelters. Image: © David Astley

Every part of the coconut palm is usable, and the leaves are no exception. Commonly, people use the leaves for shelter purposes. Because of how cheap and easy it is to get the leaves, people living in rural areas often use them when building their homes. Usually you will need to replace the leaves with a fresh new batch after a year or two, but there are products that can be sprayed on the leaves to improve that duration to as long as four years.

In many Asian countries, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, they use the midribs of the coconut leaf to create brooms. You simply need to smoothen the midribs with a knife and let them air dry before bundling a whole bunch together with a rope.

Coconut leaves also make an appearance in plenty of Asian cuisines. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia make use of the midribs as skewers, while other countries use the leaves as wraps and containers for cooking and storing food.

In the Philippines, they use woven leaves from young coconut trees to make traditional rice dishes like pusô, or hanging rice, and sinambong, a rice cake dessert.

Close-up of the underside of a coconut palm leaf.
The mid-ribs of coconut palm leaves are used to make brooms in many countries. Image: Ngo Minh Tuan

The leaves also serve as food for elephants in some countries. Elephant owners in Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand comment that coconut leaves are great treats for their elephants to enjoy.

Children living in India make toy puppets and fans out of coconut leaves. In some regions, they burn coconut leaves down until they become ash, which is an integral part of their masonry.

Traditionally, many tropical regions fashion canoes out of coconut trunks due to their durability and widespread availability. On top of that, it provides a cheaper lumbar material for constructing boats, houses, and furniture in rural areas.

You can also chop the trunk into smaller chunks, making it perfect for firewood. And you can create charcoal and activated carbon from the trunk as well.

Broken coconut shells with husk on the outside
Discarded coconut shells can be broken up, burned, and made into charcoal briquettes. Image: zibig

You don’t need to wait for the coconut tree to bear fruit just so you can enjoy it in different cuisines. The flowers alone are enough to create a vast array of wonderful products and dishes.

Harvesting the nectar from the flower creates a syrup that’s similar to honey. And not only is it sweet, but it’s healthy too because it’s a fructose that has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for those with diabetes.

So if you’re a fan of baking and consuming sweet treats and desserts, consider switching to coconut syrup. It’s been growing in popularity in recent years because of its many health benefits.

But if you’re not fond of sugar and sweetness, what about something sour and tangy? You can also create vinegar using the sap that comes from the coconut flowers.

Close-up of the golden flowers of a coconut palm.
The flowers of the coconut palm are used to make both honey and alcoholic drinks. Image: © Widyasto

If you prefer something stronger and bitter, then you can also make alcohol out of the flowers’ sap. Lambanog, a traditional distilled coconut palm liquor from the Philippines, comes from two-day-aged coconut sap, with many comparing it to vodka due to its high alcohol content and appearance.

Some countries, like India, make use of coconut flowers when celebrating various auspicious moments, like weddings, festivals, and religious ceremonies. They also make great use of the flowers as a tonic that helps with indigestion and deals with diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Last but not least are the roots. Many living in rural areas use them to create tonics and herbal medicines. Simply grab a few roots and wash them thoroughly. Then put all the roots in a pot of salted water and heat it until it starts to boil. Take the pot off the heat and let it cool down before drinking.

Traditionally, people have used this concoction to treat urinary infections and kidney-related problems. It is also said to help treat heartburn, fever, and diarrhoea.

Roots of a coconut palm exposed by erosion on a beach
The roots of coconut palms can be used to make herbal medicines. Image: ASSY

You can also use coconut roots to treat skin-related problems. Wash up some coconut roots and smash them in a bowl until they turn into a paste. Then apply it to the affected areas of your skin that are suffering from rashes or eczema. You can also make a mouthwash from the roots as they contain anti-bacterial properties.

The coconut palm is such a wonderful plant with a wide range of applications. There seems to be almost no limit to its uses, as people continue to discover new and innovative ways to incorporate coconut palms into their lives.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Love how informative and full of fun tidbits this article has. Hoping for more articles like this one or something similar

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