Taste the Tropics

The Coconut Palm Is a Universal Symbol of the Tropics

Coconut palms give food, clothing and shelter to millions of people around the world.

Photography by Scott Mahler January 3, 2019 Published in the January 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Coconut palm

The coconut palm (cocos nucifera) is a universal symbol of the tropics. It’s classified as a grass, not a tree, by some botanists. The coconut is actually a fruit and seed all in one. In fact, it’s one of the largest seeds on the planet. Coconut palms give food, clothing and shelter to millions of people around the world. No wonder it’s called the Tree of Life or Tree with a Thousand Uses in some parts of Southeast Asia, where it originated.

The coconut palm is so essential to sustaining life in some parts of the world it plays an important role in religious rituals.

The fermented sap of coconut flowers can be distilled into an alcoholic drink called arrack.

Only green coconuts contain what’s called coconut water; ripe coconut meat can be grated and pressed to make coconut milk.

Copra, the dried meat of the coconut, is used to make coconut oil. Coconut oil is a common ingredient in many soaps and cosmetics.

The coconut’s hard shell can be made into charcoal.

The coconut palm’s fibrous root system is used for making toothbrushes, dye and fuel.

Palm leaves make an excellent wrap for food to be cooked.

Coir, the fibrous material beneath the outer shell, is used to make rope, rugs and upholstery stuffing.

Palm trees can be used for timber to build houses, boats, furniture, utensils and musical instruments.

And, sorry, everyone. No scientific data supports the health claims of consuming coconut water or coconut oil. One leading producer of coconut water agreed a few years ago to a $10 million settlement for exaggerating its nutritional claims. A professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently went so far as to call coconut oil “pure poison,” and the Mayo Clinic warns that while coconut oil may be good for your skin, it definitely isn’t heart-healthy.

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