The name of this fruit is derived from
the Spanish word coco, meaning
"monkey face," because the three
indentations on one end resemble the head and
face of a monkey.
Found and exploited in tropical
and subtropical areas around the world, the
exact origins of the coconut are
the coconut palm (Cocos
nucifera) is not a tree, it is a
woody perennial. The trunk, which is technically
the stem, can be up to 18 inches in diameter, and
the palm can reach a height of about 100 feet.
The palm is topped by a crown of about 20 pinnate
leaves that generally curve downward, each of
which is about 10 to 15 feet long. The fruit grows in
clusters of 10 to 20 or more, and there may be 10
or more of these clusters, in different stages of
maturity, on a single palm. Wild coconut palms
can produce up to 100 fruits per year, with each
fruit taking about a year to ripen.
Although the species name nucifera
means "nut bearing," the coconut is
actually a drupe, a fruit with a hard
stony covering enclosing the seed (peaches and
olives are also drupes). All drupes have three
layers -- the exocarp (outer
layer), the mesocarp (fleshy middle
layer), and the endocarp (hard, woody
layer that surrounds the seed). In the case of
the coconut, the exocarp is typically smooth with
a greenish color. The next layer is the fibrous
husk, or mesocarp. When you buy a coconut at the
supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are
usually removed and what you see is the endocarp.
The crisp, white "meat" inside the
coconut is what nourishes the coconut seed.
Uses and Benefits
Virtually every part of the coconut and
coconut palm can be used by humans.
Coconuts are part of the daily diets of many
people. Coconut meat is used fresh or dried in
cooking (dried coconut meat is called copra),
especially in confections and desserts such as
macaroons. Dried coconut is also used as the
filling for many chocolate bars.
Coconut water (the liquid inside fresh
coconuts) serves a suspension for the endosperm
of the coconut during its nuclear phase of
development. Later, the endosperm matures and
deposits onto the coconut rind during the
cellular phase. Coconut water contains sugar,
dietary fiber, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins,
and minerals, making it an excellent substitute
for "straight water." Because it is
generally biologically sterile, doctors during
World War II and Vietnam used coconut water in
substitution of IV solutions.
Coconut milk, which is obtained primarily by
extracting juice by pressing the grated coconut's
white kernel or by passing hot water or milk
through grated coconut, is a common ingredient in
many tropical cuisines. It can also be consumed
raw by itself, or used as a milk substitute by
vegans or people allergic to animal milk.
Coconut oil has provided the primary source of
fat in the diets of millions of people for
generations. Once thought to be higher in
saturated fat than lard and butter, recent
research has found that the fats in coconut oil
may actually help decrease harmful cholesterol
levels. Long used in traditional medicine to
treat a wide variety of conditions, modern
science has confirmed that coconut oil is
effective against many viruses and bacteria. In
addition to its culinary uses, coconut oil is
also used as a base for many cosmetics, soaps,
and skin lotions.
Coconut husk fibers (called coir)
have long been woven into mats, ropes, brooms,
etc. Today they are also used in insulation and
packaging, and horticulturalists frequently
recommend using coconut husks as a growing medium
because, unlike traditional sphagnum moss, they
are generally free of bacteria and fungal spores.
The leaves of the coconut palm make excellent
roof thatching, and the palm trunk is used by
many cultures as a primary building material.
Some cultures also make a sweet drink from the
sap of the coconut flower.
Coconut Research Center http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/
Everyday Mysteries http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/coconut.html
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