Do you know the coconut as well as you think you do? We put this ubiquitous plant under the ‘coco-scope’ and see if it has special powers.
The coconut made an unexpected public appearance earlier this week when it was featured as part of an odd assortment of divining implements by a less-than-credible magic man looking for MH370.
Although we can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this rather nutty use for the husky nut, Cocos nucifera is one of the most useful plants that humans have domesticated and cultivated for our own use.
We take a quick look at this amazing plant has depended on us as much as we’ve depended on it for each other’s continuing survival.
Where did the coconut come from? Well, it’s inconclusive. Although coconut fossils from around 37 to 55 million years ago have been found in Australia and India, even older variety of the related nipah species have been found in the Americas.
To date, scientists have suggested three different places of origin: the Americas, the Pacific islands, or somewhere in the Indian Ocean – one even claims it's from the Malay archipelago.
What’s definite is that by the time Marco Polo first came across it in the 12th century in Sumatra, the plant had already been used and cultivated for eons by coastal communities from eastern Africa, across the Indian Ocean, all the way to the Pacific.
The modern English name comes to us from Portuguese explorers who first came across it in India. They called it coco, meaning “grinning face, grin, grimace”, in reference to the three indentations on the base of the nut that reminded them of a monkey or goblin face.
It has older names, however, with many languages having specific terms for the tree, stem, and fruit in varying stages of ripening. In Malayalam, the husk-less nut is referred to as tenga.
The Polynesians call it niu, a word closely related to the Malay nyiur and Tagalog niyog. In Swahili, the coconut’s white flesh is called joya. Meanwhile, Farsi has the word nargil, which lies behind the Persian term nargileh for water pipe, since coconut shells can be used as a pipe bowl.
Tree of life
Often referred to as the tree with a thousand uses, all parts of the coconut can and have been used by various people throughout the ages. The young flowers of the coconut tree, called mayang or manggar, can be eaten.
The clear sap collected from cut flower buds can be made into gula melaka; or when fermented, into the infamous todi. In Sabah, there’s a local todi called bahar that apparently contains high levels of antioxidants.
Green coconut water is highly nutritious. From the mature nut, oil can be extracted. The leaves can be woven into mats, the tree trunks can be used for building material, and the husk fibre can be turned into rope or burned for cooking.
The shell, when dried and polished, can be turned into bowls, spoons, jewellery and even bras. It’s no surprise then that some people have written that the coconut could be the original mythical ‘tree of life’.
Low in calories and sugar, fat- and cholesterol- free, more potassium than four bananas, health experts recommend green coconut water as “Mother Nature’s sports drink” with benefits ranging from its super-hydrating properties to curing hangovers, dissolving kidney stones and flushing out intestinal worms.
It’s not just fit for drinking either.
The cure-all liquid has been found to contain just the right balance of electrolytes and minerals that it can and has been used as a safe substitute for saline water in intravenous drips. Indeed, doctors recommend drinking coconut water as a way to speed up recovery and boost the immune system after a bout of illness.
Virgin coconut oil, produced through a ‘wet-milling’ process of the flesh of mature coconuts, is the highest grade of coconut-derived oils and it’s a veritable super-food, containing a high level of antioxidants. Virgin coconut oil is also highly recommended for the oral health-enhancing practice known as “oil pulling”.
It’s an ancient Ayurvedic healing practice whereby one keeps a spoonful of oil in one’s mouth for up to 20 minutes first thing every morning. Apparently the oil kills bacteria in the mouth that causes bad breath and gingivitis. Just remember to spit out the oil afterwards.