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The Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera), is a member of the family Arecaceae (palm family). It is the only species in the genus Cocos, and is a large palm, growing to 30 m tall, with pinnate leaves 4-6 m long, with pinnae 60-90 cm long; old leaves fall cleanly leaving the trunk smooth. The term coconut refers to the fruit of the coconut palm.
The origins of this plant are the subject of debate with some authorities claiming it is native to southeast Asia, while others claim its origin is in north-western South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small coconut-like plants grew there as far back 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Rajasthan, India. Regardless of their origins, coconuts have spread across much of the tropics, in particular along tropical shorelines. Since its fruit is light and buoyant, the plant is readily spread by marine currents, which can carry coconuts significant distances.
The Coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity and prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (75-200 cm annually), which makes colonising the many shorelines of the tropics relatively straightforward. Coconuts also need high air humidity for optimum growth (70–80%+), which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity (e.g. the Mediterranean), even where temperatures are not a problem. They are very hard to establish and grow in drier climates. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable and have subsequently germinated given the right conditions. In the Hawaiian Islands, the coconut is regarded as a Polynesian introduction, first brought to the Islands by early Polynesian voyagers from their homelands in the South Pacific.
Botanically, a coconut is a simple dry fruit known as a fibrous drupe (not a true nut). The husk (mesocarp) is composed of fibres called coir and there is an inner "stone" (the endocarp). This hard endocarp (the coconut as sold in the shops of non-tropical countries) has three germination pores that are clearly visible on the outside surface once the husk is removed. It is through one of these that the radicle emerges when the embryo germinates. When viewed on end, the endocarp and germination pores resemble the face of a monkey, the Portuguese word for which is coco. In some parts of the world, trained monkeys are used to harvest the coconut. Training schools for monkeys still exist in southern Thailand. Competitions are held each year to discover the fastest harvester.
All parts of the coconut palm are useful, and the trees have a comparatively high yield (up to 75 "nuts" per year); it therefore has significant economic value. The name for the coconut palm in Sanskrit is kalpa vriksha, which translates as "the tree which provides all the necessities of life". In Malay, the coconut is known as pokok seribu guna, "the tree of a thousand uses".
Uses of the various parts of the palm include:
The Indonesian tale of Hainuwele tells the story of the introduction of coconuts to Seram.
Remove the outer husk and pierce one of the eyes of the fruit. Drain the juice from the fruit and place the coconut in a hot oven (approx. 250° Celsius) for ten minutes or until the outer shell cracks. Remove from the oven and break into pieces by tapping with a hammer. The coconut meat is easily removed with a sharp knife. Soak the white meat in cold water for five minutes.
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