The coconut palm—that elegant lanky symbol for tropical island paradise—is also one of the most fascinating trees on the planet. Its statistics honor the Cocos nucifera—literally monkey-face nut fruit—with superlatives: It has the largest leaf in the plant kingdom, the largest seed, the largest inflorescence (flower cluster), and is one of the oldest known flowering plants—fossils date it back to some 120 million years ago, to the Cretaceous period, or Age of Dinosaurs.
No one is entirely certain of its precise origin, but the western Pacific is believed to have been its cradle. Over the millennia the coconut palm found its way to nearly 200 countries— from Australia to Zimbabwe and, with a preference for wet tropics, everywhere in-between. It wasn't the usual birds-and-bees mode of transport that spread the seeds far and wide, but via its own built-in flotation device—the coconut. These giant seed fruits fall from their parent tree, roll to the water's edge, hitch a ride on the tides and currents—sometimes for thousands of miles—to a sandy shore where, after drying out in the sun, they take up permanent residence by sprouting roots out of two of its three eyes, and sending a green shoot sunward from the other. In five to seven years the seedling matures and flowers into a fruit-bearing tree with a crowning fringe of about 25 – 35 self-replacing leaves, or fronds (a single leaf can grow an inch in 24 hours!). The palm tree itself can grow up to 100 feet and continues to yield coconuts for up to a century. Its uses, in addition to the edible coconut, are seemingly endless.
Once the early people of Oceania discovered the versatility of the coconut palm they also helped spread the seed by carrying quantities with them on their inter-island voyages and planting them. The successful growth of coconut palms meant human sustainability and, therefore, extended options for places to live in the far-flung island world. When Polynesian explorers came across a small island near Tonga covered in coconut palms, they named it Niue which directly translates into behold the coconut! To those ancient South Seas mariners the thriving palms meant the island was move-in ready.
Long hailed as a tree of life, the coconut palm provided almost everything necessary for life in the tropics: food, drink, shade, thatch for shelter, timber, clothing, baskets, cordage, fans, oil for fuel, and much more. Its importance and value have only increased over the centuries and the itinerant coconut palm now has a ubiquitous presence worldwide.
Today the coconut and its by-products are among the world's major economic crops. The white meat of the coconut, the most valuable part of the fruit, is sun-dried to make copra. Extracted from the copra is coconut oil whose multiple uses include cooking oil, suntan and moisturizing lotions, margarine, soap, and candles. Coir, the strong fibrous husk of the coconut shell, is used worldwide to make floor mats, rope, and even aquarium filters. Coir waste is proving to be excellent garden mulch and companies in the Philippines are racing to produce biodiesel from coconut oil with claims that it can raise fuel efficiency up to 25 percent. It seems that as our needs change and grow, and as necessity continues to be the mother of invention, the wondrous coconut palm continues to provide. Tree of life indeed!