Cocoanut Tree (cocos nucifera, Linn.), one of the best known of the great family of palms, and perhaps also the most useful. There is a saying among eastern nations that its attributes would fill a book. Although a native of the tropics, and flourishing only on the seashore, it will grow as far north as Lucknow in India (lat. 26° 50' N), and is planted far in the interior of that peninsula; but in the one case it does not bear fruit, in the other it is dwarfed and languishes. In conservatories the cocoa-nut seldom lives more than 10 or 12 years. The centres of the geographical range of this palm are the islands bordering on the Indian and central Pacific oceans. It is also found in the tropics of America, but is there considered rather an article of luxury than of necessity. The tree attains a height of from 60 to 100 ft., and a diameter of one or two feet. Its cylindrical, gently tapering trunk, usually somewhat inclined, from the constant winds of the tropics, is crowned by numerous feather-like leaves from 18 to 20 ft. long. The flowers appear on the axils of the leaves, and are enclosed in a thick tough spathe; when this first opens, the clusters of small, three-parted flowers have a beautiful milk-white appearance, although they soon become yellowish.
The spathe opens always on the under side, and soon falls off, leaving a spicate spadix bearing the female flowers near the base. As in most palms, the blossom is beautiful from the great number of the florets rather than from any individual grace. In favorable places these clusters are produced every six weeks during the rainy season, and each one ripens from 5 to 15 nuts. Each tree thus has a succession of fruit, and may produce from 80 to 100 nuts a year. In planting the nut the three black spots on one end are left uppermost. From one of these the stem rises, and the shell is soon split. Often the nut does not begin to germinate for six months, or even a year, after planting, while it is sometimes seen sprouting when lying on the ground, with its husk still green. Its growth is very slow for the first two years, and not until six or seven years old does it begin to bear, continuing until 70 years, or even longer. After the tree ceases to bear, the wood becomes very hard, and from its peculiar fibre is known as porcupine wood. Where it grows it is used for posts and rafters to houses, and the immature wood, which has a soft centre easily removed, is used for water pipes. The rootlets are astringent and are used for chewing.
The leaves are usually 12 or 15 in number, and 5 or 6 are formed every year, the old ones dropping off, and leaving the horizontal scars that ornament the trunk. The new leaf is enclosed in a tough fibrous sheath, which is used as a strainer, or even for clothing; the pointed, solid leaf soon bursting through it, and by the elongation of its midrib becoming a pinnate leaf. When fresh the leaves are cooked and eaten as cabbage. The dry leaves are plaited together, and form the covering for the roofs and sides of bungalows. The base, with the midrib, serves as a paddle; the midrib as an arrow or spear; the lateral ribs, when stripped, make good brooms. The leaflets serve for paper, the writing being made with a sharp point, and cow dung is usually rubbed in to make the characters more distinct. The leaves are also used for fans, fences, thatch, bedding, fish nets, sieves, and hats. The smaller ribs are made into neat combs. The whole makes a good torch, and is also burned by the washerwomen for its potash. The flowers contain a most powerful astringent, and in Ceylon are used medicinally in various debilitating diseases. Before they burst from the spathe, the sap, or toddy, is obtained by bruising and slicing the base or extremity.
The quantity collected in this way varies, and always diminishes the yield of fruit. When fresh the toddy is delicious, and acts as a gentle aperient. Fermentation takes place in a few hours, and the liquor is then known as palm wine, which is a pleasant drink, and is much used by bakers for yeast. By distillation toddy yields 25 per cent, of arrack. By allowing the fermentation to proceed, a good vinegar is obtained; and by boiling the fresh toddy a tolerable sugar, or jaggery, can be made. Eight gallons of sweet toddy yield two gallons of a luscious liquid called pervin by the Cingalese; and the brown sugar obtained from this by further boiling is formed into round cakes, and eaten or exported. The husk of the cocoanut is very fibrous, and contains considerable silica. Cut transversely, the halves of the nut make excellent scrubbing brushes for the decks of ships. The husk when dry is stripped off by means of a small stake fixed in the ground, and a man can strip 1,000 nuts a day; the husks are then soaked for several months in water to separate the fibres, and finally twisted into rope, or woven into mats, under the name of coir. The rope is very strong and light, does not rot when wet, and floats on the water.
It is stronger and more elastic than hemp, and is preferred to hemp or chain for cables, as enabling a ship to ride easily at anchor in rough weather". Forty nuts usually yield six pounds of coir. The Polynesians twist and braid small cords of this fibre, which, as "sinnet," serves in the construction of houses and canoes, where Europeans would use nails. The shell of the nut within this husk is very hard when fully ripe, and takes a fine polish; burnt, it forms good lampblack, and as charcoal is in demand as a dentifrice. When the nut is still green it contains from one to two pints of a rich clear liquid, always cool when first gathered from the tree, and the shell is lined with a gelatinous soft mass, which is eaten either alone or flavored with various juices. An analysis of this liquid shows in 1,000 parts:
Extractive matters (oil)...........
Salts soluble in alcohol...
Salts insoluble in alcohol........
When taken to excess, it produces strangury, but people often drink nothing else for weeks without bad effects. When the nut is gathered with the stem attached, it may be kept fresh at sea for several weeks, and the water is considered a good remedy for seasickness. It is also used with lime in making chunam, a hard plaster, and in various processes of cooking. As the nut ripens, the albumen is deposited in a thick lining in the shell, and the liquid becomes insipid. The albumen in this form may be eaten, and is cooked in various ways, always forming an important ingredient of genuine curries and mulligatawnies. It contains much oil, and the Polynesians chew it up and rub it into their hair as a pomatum. The oil is perhaps one of the most valuable products. The Micronesians break up the ripe nuts and expose the meat to the heat of the sun in covered troughs, keeping the mass constantly wet. Fermentation takes place, and the oil drops out into receivers. The East Indian process is almost as rude, the broken nuts being ground in a wooden or stone mill of primitive construction. The product varies in quantity as well as in quality; 10 nuts sometimes produce a quart of oil, and at other times 30 yield only three pints.
In some places the ground nuts are pressed or even boiled, but the oil thus obtained is inferior. The best oil is used for cooking purposes, or to anoint the body, a most grateful process in a hot climate, and the inferior sorts for illumination. Large quantities are imported into the United States and England for the manufacture of candles and soap. The cocoa-nut is an example of the palms that have two of the three ovules regularly abortive, the third occupying the whole inner surface of the nut, and in germination sending the radicle through the only one of the three apertures in the shell which remains soft.