After selecting their eight pieces of music, one luxury item and a book, other than the bible or the complete works of Shakespeare, the ageing celebrities so frequently found inhabiting Radio Four’s fantasy island, are asked, how well do they think they will be able to cope? The reality of course is that even the fittest individuals in the prime of their lives would find it very difficult to survive marooned on most desert islands if it was not for the coconut palm or the ‘tree of life’, as it is sometimes known.
The coconut is probably the most useful species of plant ever cultivated by man, its applications are not only numerous and diverse, but new ones are continually being invented. The most obvious of these are the use of the fruit as both food and drink, either raw or processed, and both savoury and sweet. Coconut milk, which is used in curries and ice cream, is made by squeezing the freshly grated nut through a cloth. Coconut water is the liquid that fills the cavity of the fresh unripe fruit. Throughout the tropics green coconuts are harvested at about seven months old when they contain up to half a litre of water. After this has been drunk the flesh, which is jelly-like at this stage is eaten with a spoon cut from its outer shell. Sap, tapped from immature flowers, can be fermented to make an alcoholic beverage called toddy. This can be distilled to produce a spirit called arrack or left to turn to a vinegar. Alternatively the sap can be boiled down to produce palm sugar. Other parts of the palm are also edible. The germinating nut, like a gigantic bean sprout, is eaten in some places where it is called, coconut apple. Deep in the crown of the palm tree is a single large bud known as palm cabbage, which is considered a great delicacy by many. Unfortunately extracting this bud usually kills the tree. Coconut oil, which is extracted from the flesh of the nut, is not only used in cooking, it is also applied to ease the stiff joints of both man and machine, it is used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents and cosmetics and in producing margarine. It is massaged into the hair or burnt in lamps to make both shine. The residues from which the oil has been expressed are fed to animals as coconut cake.
Hardened coconut shells are used to produce bowls and bottles, buttons and bangles, cups and carved decorations, they are used as maracas, not to mention the amateur dramatist’s favourite sound effect of horses’ hooves. The fibres extracted from the husk, which surrounds the nut, have been spun into ropes, woven into matting, stuffed into furniture and used in brushes. The leaves are used for thatching, woven into screens and mats or plaited into fans, hats and baskets. Their midribs are formed into fish-traps and brooms. Its timber provides a valuable building material and the roots are chewed to clean the teeth. Palm trees provide shelter from the hot tropical sun, and are used horticulturally to protect more delicate plants. What could be more idyllic than a hammock slung between two palm trees on a tropical beach as you listen to your eight pieces of music or read your one book?
All of these different uses of the coconut raise the chicken and egg question – are there so many ways of utilising coconut because it was one of very few species available on remote desert islands, thus mankind had no alternative but to use what he could? Or did mankind distribute the species so widely because it was such a useful crop?
Although it is said that no truly wild coconuts are known, they are found growing on even the remotest of tropical shores all around the globe. It has long been known that coconuts have the ability to be carried thousands of miles, floating with the ocean currents, before being deposited on distant islands. Thus it was that palms trees were able to establish on the volcanic island of Krakatau following the obliteration of all life there during the eruption of 1883. Similarly nine years after the atomic tests on Bikini atoll coconuts had naturally re-colonised by drifting across the lagoon from neighbouring islands. However, as with all chicken and egg problems there appears to be no satisfactory solution. It is generally considered that, early seafarers where important in dispersing the species both east and west from it original home in the Malay archipelago. The nuts not only provided extra buoyancy for the boats but also provided a fresh supply of liquid during the voyage. The species appears to have been carried overland across Africa before making its way to the Americas, west across the Atlantic and east across the Pacific. This is thought to explain why the coconuts which grow on the east and west coastlines of Central America are so remarkably different from each other.
An alternative hypothesis, not usually given much credence, is the possibility that the coconut was dispersed around the globe within the guts of a very large bird.