September 2nd is World Coconut Day, a holiday observed big-time in the Asian and Pacific countries, which are home to most of the world’s coconut producing countries. National Coconut Day in the U.S. is June 26th.
World Coconut Day was established to increase public awareness of the health and commercial benefits of coconut, a fruit that has been on earth for millions of years, much to the benefit of humanity (we’ll talk further about that in a bit).
While some Americans might think that our coconuts come from Hawaii, the top three coconut producers, representing 75% of the world output, are Indonesia (17+ metric tons), Philippines and India (both around 15 metric tons).
Smaller quantities from 2.5 to .5 metric tons are produced in Sri Lanka, Brazil, Vietnam, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Malaysia [source].
Yes, but only on the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera), a member of the palm family (Arecaceae). The family includes a variety of plants: climbers, shrubs, tree-like and stemless plants. All are commonly known as palms.
Yet with all the Arecaceae members, the coconut palm is the only extant species of the genus Cocos, i.e., the only tree that bears coconuts.
Coconut palm trees grow up to 100 feet tall. Each tree can yield up to 75 fruits per year, though fewer than 30 is more typical.
The trees are intolerant of cold weather and prefer copious precipitation, as well as full sunlight; i.e., the tropics.
The term “coconut” (the archaic spelling was cocoanut) can refer to the whole coconut palm tree, the seed or the fruit.
Yes, the coconut is botanically a fruit, not a nut. The “nut” portion of its name was given because of its similarity to hard-shell nuts.
The part of the coconut that we eat is the inner flesh (called coconut meat) of the mature seed of the coconut palm. Here’s another bit of botany: Coconuts are drupes.
Drupes (here’s more about them) include stone fruits (apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, etc.; and tropical fruits like coconut and mango. Nuts—almonds, hickory nuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts—are also drupes; as are peppercorns.
And there’s yet another group of drupes typically not eaten raw, which includes coffee and olives†.
The coconuts is different from these drupes, A coconut is a fibrous one-seeded drupe, also known as a dry drupe.
There are three indentations on the coconut shell that were thought to resemble facial features.
The coconut palm is one of the most useful trees in the world. It provides food (flesh, coconut milk and coconut water*, cooking oil), fuel and building materials, and is used in cosmetics and homeopathic medicine, among many other uses (hence, the tree of life).
No one knows exactly when the first coconut palm tree appeared, but the oldest coconut fossils found date to some 55 million years ago [source].
Coconuts were domesticated in prehistoric times by the Austronesian peoples, indigenous to Taiwan.
Coconuts likely were first cultivated on islands in Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and perhaps on the continent as well. In the Indian Ocean, the likely center of cultivation was the southern periphery of India, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Laccadives [source].
They subsequently expanded to Madagascar, Maritime Southeast Asia and Oceania. Coconuts were spread during the Neolithic era (from 10,000 B.C.E. to 4,500 B.C.E.) via seaborne migrations of people…and the fruit, which can float, may well have made its way across oceans.
Coconuts played a crucial role in the long sea voyages of early people. They provided a portable source of food and water, as well as building materials for outrigger boats.
Coconuts were later spread along the coasts of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans by Arab, European and South Asian sailors. Arab sailors carried coconuts from India to East Africa as long as 2,000 years ago [source].
Arab traders also introduced coconuts to Europeans, first along the trans-Asian Silk Roads. Among the traders was the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who encountered the tree in Egypt in the 13th century, calling its fruit “the Pharaoh’s nut” [ibid].
Coconuts Reach The Americas
Coconuts were introduced by Europeans to the Americas during the colonial era of the Columbian Exchange, following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
However, to dig into the ancient past, there is evidence of a possible pre-Columbian introduction of coconuts to Panama by Austronesian sailors [source].
For the present, think of what coconut recipes you’d like to try, to celebrate World Coconut Day.
*Coconut water occurs naturally within the fruit; coconut milk is a processed beverage.
†Olives cannot be eaten from the tree. They contain oleuropein and phenolic compounds, which, while not poisonous, must be removed or at least, reduced, to make the olive palatable.