If ever you had to choose but one plant amongst all of the other plants on the planet to co-exist with or you ever found yourself in a dire survival situation, which plant would you choose; which plant would you seek out? (Hint – it is a tropical plant, that can grow up to 100 ft. in height, produces a nut and is the paradigm of the tropics and tropical beauty). Well, if you chose the Coconut Palm, Cocos nucifera, then you chose wisely and your chances of survival would be high. In Malaysia it is called “the tree of a thousand uses” and in the Phillipines “the tree of life” – and these titles are highly warranted.
Cocos nucifera has been cultivated for so long, and was introduced to tropical regions at such an early date in time (possibly 4,000 years ago), that its exact place of origins are obscured and can only be speculated as being the seacoasts of the South Pacific Islands. “Nucifera” means “nut bearing” and “Cocos” comes from the Portuguese word for “monkey”, which refers to the resemblance of the three indentations or eyes of a coconut to that of a monkey’s face.
The Coconut Palm Tree is truly the most utilitarian plant on earth. Practically every part of this plant can be utilized in one way or another and the health benefits of its fruit are being re-discovered and touted. The coconut’s nut or seed (the innermost part of the fruit) provides highly nutritious water (agua pipa), milk, meat (copra), and oil which has fed and nourished populations around the world for generations. It is considered a “functional food” which means its health benefits go beyond its nutritional value. Nearly one third of the world’s population depends on the coconut palm to some degree for their food and their economy. Among these cultures the coconut has a long and respected history.
To have an awareness and knowledge of the “thousand uses” and benefits of the coconut palm – is to appreciate why this plant is so highly glorified and considered in some cultures as “the tree of life”. Below is an abbreviated list of the many uses of its various parts.
Roots – made into a beverage and a mouthwash; used as a dye
Trunk – provides a straight, salt-resistant, durable wood used for building timbers in the construction of homes, bridges and furniture; used to make paper pulp.
Leaves – used for making roof thatching, wall separators, fences, brooms, hats, floor mats, fans, lamp shades, bags, baskets and toothpicks.
Husk (consist of a hard outer covering, inner fibers and finer particles called “coir”)- used in making ropes, mattresses, pillows, coarse cloth and brushes; used as firewood; burnt for mosquito repellant; is an alternative for peat moss that provides moisture- holding abilities, aeration and drainage in soils; mulching material.
Shell (of the inner nut/seed) – used as charcoal; used in making bowls, cups, storage containers, jewelry and musical instruments.
Flower inflorescence – used to make helmets, caps and handbags; the extracted sap from the flowers made into “toddy” which is used to produce vinegar, wine, brandy and bread yeast
Meat (the hardened, thick white flesh called the “copra”) – is a sweet and tasty, high source of protein, fiber (higher than legumes and grains), Vitamins (C, Thiamin, Folic Acid, Potassium), Minerals (Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus); regulates blood sugar & insulin levels; aids in digestion; used for making coconut flour, shredded coconut, candles, candies, soaps, cosmetics and animal feeds; is the source of coconut milk and oil.
Coconut Water (the liquid in both young and old coconuts and not to be confused with coconut milk) – is highly valued for its re-hydration abilities due its isotonic electrolyte properties; kidney cleanser and laxative (older milk).
Coconut Jelly (the jelly-like flesh of young, green coconuts, which later becomes the meat) – desserts and coconut jelly.
Coconut Milk/Cream (made by squeezing the grated or finely blended coconut meat) – used in making beverages (pina coladas), Thai curries and desserts; source of virgin coconut oil.
Coconut Oil – (produced from allowing the extracted milk to set and ferment for 24-48 hrs. for the oil to rise and then be separated or the meat is heat-pressed) – used for skin and hair care products; used in hospital IV solutions; is being re-claimed as “the healthiest oil on earth” and has innumerable health benefits including, but not limited to – aids in digestion; empowers the immune system; boost energy and endurance; has antiviral (influenza, herpes, hepatitis C, AIDS, measles), antibacterial (ulcers, throat infections, urinary tract infections), antifungal (candida, athletes foot, diaper rash) and antioxidant properties; expels toxins, carcinogens and internal parasites in humans and animals; increases mineral absorption in your body and promotes weight loss.
Only recently has modern medical science unlocked the astounding secrets to coconut’s amazing healing powers. Coconut oil is of special interest because it possesses healing properties far beyond that of any other dietary oil. The Coconut Research Center, located in Colorado Springs, CO and founded by Dr. Bruce Fife, has revived the tainted reputation of coconut oil, which was pooh-poohed in the 70’s in the U.S. for being “heart un-healthy”. Dr. Fife’s findings have helped to restore vigor and hope to depressed economies and starving people in Malaysia and other tropical countries, which were economically devastated by the negative claims about coconut and palm oils. Dr Fife’s research has revealed that these accusations (which were being publicized by none other than the U.S. soybean and corn industries and other U.S. special interest groups – hmmm, imagine that) regarding its supposed unhealthy saturated fatty acid content were unfounded, untrue and had no scientific research and evidence to back them up. Dr. Fife’s research has unveiled the true chemical nature of the coconut’s fatty acids.
Most, if not all of the fatty acids that we consume today are Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) as are the vegetable oils including canola, safflower, olive and sunflower. Coconut oil, however, is unique in the fact that it is made up of mostly MCFA’s (Medium Chain Fatty Acids). MCFA’s are easily broken down, digested and used rapidly by the body for energy, unlike LCFA’s, which are much harder to break down, digest and are stored in the body as fat. MCFA’s are also found in human breast milk, which is considered nature’s most perfect food. It is these MCFA’s that protect babies from infections for the first few months while the immune system is still developing.
The Coconut Research Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public and medical community about the many benefits of coconut and other palm products. They do not sell coconut products; their purpose is purely educational. Their website, www.coconutresearchcenter.org , contains informative articles on the nutritional and medical uses of coconut and palm products, links to published studies, sources for books on coconut, palm, and related topics, recipes, and a listing of the best sources for products. New information is continually being added to keep their website up-to-date and provide the most informative coconut/palm educational resource available. The purpose of their website is to “dispel the myths surrounding coconut and palm products and to present a more accurate and scientific viewpoint. The health benefits of coconut and palm are so numerous and so remarkable that this information needs to be available to all”.
There is a mountain of additional information concerning the coconut palm and coconut oil available on the web and we are fortunate to be living in a tropical area where coconuts are plentiful, but oddly enough, coconut products are not.
Educational programs at the future botanical garden will include interesting guest speakers like Dr. Fife – to share his fascinating story and extensive coconut research; chefs to conduct culinary classes on cooking with coconut products; artisans to demonstrate their coconut artistry and craftsmanship; and health and beauty experts to give advice and instruction on the use of virgin coconut oil. You will be able to peruse the Coconut Festival, while sampling coconut crème pies and coconut curries that tantalize your tastebuds, and join in on celebrating the “thousand uses” of one of the most incredible, versatile and medicinal plants on the planet – the coconut palm.
Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 8 years. She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected], 2777-5149