Coconut trees instantly transform an area into a tropical-looking setting. These tall palms exist all over the warmer areas of the world, where they are used for landscape plants and along roads. Many wild populations grow naturally along the ocean shores. In addition to their beauty, these trees are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world.
Coconut palms grow pantropically, or all over the tropics. They are primarily found near coastal shores. They thought to have originated in the South Pacific islands, then spread throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans. European explorers spread them to the Atlantic and Caribbean. Coconut seeds can survive many months floating at sea, then sprout on a distant shore, contributing to their wide dispersal.
Coconut trees are tall palms. Tall varieties are capable of reaching up to 100 feet, but most stay shorter at 20 to 50 feet. Dwarf varieties stay under 60 feet tall. The leaves reach up to 18 feet long and are are arranged like a feather composed of numerous leaflets, each 12 to 24 inches long. The trunk is smooth and gray-brown. It is sometimes straight, but often bent or curved. The tree grows from a central point at the top called an apical bud. If this bud dies, the whole tree dies.
The coconut fruit is encased in a hard protective outer layer. Under this layer is the coir, or thick, fibrous husk that surrounds the brittle and hard thin shell. On the shell are three black spots, often referred to as eyes. Inside the shell is the white flesh and liquid. The flesh and liquid are stored nutrients to later feed a sprouting seed until it can grow its own leaves.
The nuts of the coconut tree have many uses. The coir is used as a soil amendment, replacing peat, and is used to stuff mats. The flesh is shredded and used in many confections. The liquid is often consumed fresh or used in mixed drinks. The flesh can be pressed to remove the oil. Coconut oil is used widely in cooking and in processed food. It is also a component in many soaps.
Coconuts are a vital crop for many people in developing countries around the world. Most coconuts are still grown on family-sized farms and it is one of the staple food crops in many areas. This plant has been a staple food for a long time in the South Pacific. Coconut, along with the sweet potato and breadfruit, was always taken on long sea voyages by ancient Polynesians who helped establish it on numerous isolated islands.
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