THE TREE OF LIFE
The coconut is native to the Old World tropics; probably originating somewhere in the area between the Indian Ocean and Melansia. The fruits have been known to float for up to 110 days in the sea water.
Two basic types of coconuts are recognized, one with a large husk and small shell called niu kata (traditionally used for making cordage) and the other with small husk and large shell called nui kata (traditionally favoured for its more copious coconut meat and water).
Coconuts were not present in the Caribbean at the time of Columbus’ arrival there in 1942 being limited at that time to part of the west coast of central America ( Panama and the adjacent Columbia) The most likely explantation of this introduction by Polynesian voyagers to this area, possibly from the Marquesas. It is fairly certain that Polynesian voyagers visited South America and brought back the sweet potatoe, so for them to have left coconuts in South American during the same voyage is not a stretch of the imagination.
The Polynesians had their own stories about how the coconut originated. Best known of these is Sina and the Eel. On the island of Savai’i in Samoa a beautiful girl called Sina whose beauty was known across the Pacific. This beauty reached the Tui Fiti or the King of Fiji. Using his mana (magic) he transformed himself to an eel and went to her village. As he got to the village pool, he had seen the beauty that is Sina. However, when Sina looked into the pool, she saw the eel staring up at her. Angry, she cried “you stare at me with eyes like a demon!” But quickly Sina noticed that the eel was very nice and made it her pet. Years and years passed and the Tui Fiti grew old and with it his magic He had grown weak and decided to reveal himself. Explaining to Sina that he once was the King of Figi and have come to see her beauty but knew he had no chance with her. He had asked Sina to plant its head in the ground. Sina followed the eels request and planted the head in the ground. A coconut tree grew. When the husk is removed from a coconut, there are three round marks which appear like the face of the fish with two eyes and a mouth. One of the marks is pierced from drinking the coconut and hence when Sina takes a drink, she is kissing the eel. In Samoa, the fresh spring pool Matole Alelo in the small village of Matavai is associated with the legend of Sina and the Eel. The pool is named after Sinas words to the eel in the legend. The pool is open to visitors to this day.
The palm is adapted to sandy, littoral habitats but grows well within plantations in the mountains up to an elevation of 300m. Planting is a somewhat inappropriate word since coconuts can simply germinate and grow while the nut is sitting on the ground. Coconut palms seen in inaccessible places, such as rocky islets, were probably carried there by intrepid climbers as proof of reaching the spot. In Hawai’i an octopus was sometimes placed in the bottom of the hole, supposedly to give the coconut roots a spread and grip like that of the eight armed mollusk. On many islands, large commercial plantations were established during the European era, which gave Polynesia it’s first important agriculture export other than food for passing ships. (Sandalwood was the first major export from Polynesia, but was harvested rather than cultivated)
The coconut germinates by sending a sprout out through the “mouth” of the coconut, which gradually pushes its way through the husk until it emerges and gradually expands into leaves, which at first are undivided but later split into typical count fronds. At this stage the sprout is attached to the spongy placenta within the shell, which supplies it with nutrients until it can make its own. It gradually absorbs the placenta, which softens into an oily substance. A root then forms at the base of the sprout and grows through the husk that protects it during its tender stage, eventually emerging and growing into the soil. Coconuts mature within 5-10 years of planting and at their peak (in their 12th-20th year) may produce 40-60 nuts per year.
The nuts are harvested in three basic ways. If they are being used for copra (the dried meat of the coconut) the mature nuts are simply collected from the ground. Most harvesting for local consumption involves climbing the trunk. While the climber is precariously perched in the palms crown he twists the nut until the stalk breaks and the nut falls to the ground The third method of collecting coconuts is to knock them down with a rock, which is perhaps mostly done in Samoa, but this practice is only used if other alternatives are less appealing as it can damage or knock down immature nuts.
The coconut is undoubtedly the most useful tree in Polynesia; nearly every part is used for something. The nut itself has 3 edible parts – the “meat”, the absorbing organ (or placenta), and the coco water. Even the husk of some varieties of coconut is edible.
One of the most important uses of coconuts is as a beverage plant. It tends to quench thirst better than water. The flesh of the coconut (technically the endosperm) forms on the walls of the shell as the fruit develops. At the beginning of this stage, the coconut water is at its tastiest. Early in its development the flesh is a thin gelatinous layer that can be eaten with spoon. Our favourite part!
Coconut shells had a number of traditional uses in Polynesia – for vessels (cups, water containers, etc.) charcoal, tools, and even jewelry. One other use bears mentioning. In the Societies and Marquesas, fractured skills were reportedly mended with pieces of coconut shell. WOW, how amazing!
Like most of the cultural plants, coconut had medicinal uses, most of which involved coconut cream or oil. The juice squeezed from the husk of a coconut that has not fallen to the ground is commonly dripped into the mouth of a newborn baby to treat an ailment called lanuai, believed to be caused by the fetus swallowing amniotic fluid before birth. The sap from a green coconut husk is sometimes squeeze onto skin sores; coconut cream mixed with other ingredients is sometimes used similarly; and the leaves are occasionally chewed to relieve a gassy stomach.
It really is the TREE OF LIFE, because they say if you are stranded on a deserted island all you have to do is find a coconut tree and you will survive.