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Coconut palm in Thailand

The coconut palm is a member of the Family Arecaceae (palm family). The origins of this plant are the subject of debate with some authorities claiming it is native to the Southeast Asian peninsula while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small coconut-like plants were found there as far back 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Rajasthan, India. Regardless of their origins coconuts have spread across much of the tropics, in particular along tropical shorelines. Since its fruit is light and buoyant the plant is readily spread by marine currents which can carry coconuts significant distances. The coconut palm thrives on sandy, saline soils in areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall which makes colonising the shore relatively straightforward. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable and have subsequently germinated given the right conditions.

In botany, a coconut is a simple dry fruit known as a fibrous drupe (not a nut). The husk (mesocarp) is fibrous and there is an inner "stone" (the endocarp). This hard endocarp has three germination pores that are clearly visible on the outside surface once the husk is removed. It is through one of these that the radicle emerges when the embryo germinates.

All parts of coconut plant are useful and the trees have a comparatively high yield (up to 75 "nuts" per year) it therefore has significant economic value. Indeed in Sanskrit the name for the coconut palm is kalpa vriksha, which translates as "the tree which provides all the necessities of life". Uses of the various parts of the palm include:

  1. The white, fleshy part of the seed is edible and used fresh or dried in cooking;
  2. The cavity is filled with "coconut water" containing sugars which are used as a refreshing drink;
  3. Coconut milk (which is approximately 17% fat) is made by processing grated coconut with hot water which extracts the oil and aromatic compounds;
  4. The sap derived from incising the flower clusters of the coconut form a drink known as "toddy" or, in the Philippines, tuba;
  5. Apical buds of adult plants are edible and are known as "palm-cabbage";
  6. The interior of the growing tip is called heart-of-palm and eaten in salads sometimes called "millionaire's salad";
  7. Coir is the fiber from the husk of the coconut, used in ropes, mats, brushes, calking boats and as stuffing fiber;
  8. Copra is the dried meat of the seed which is the source of coconut oil;
  9. The trunks provide building timbers;
  10. The leaves provide materials for baskets and roofing thatch;
  11. The husk and shells can be used for fuel and are a good source of charcoal;
  12. Hawaiians hollow the swollen trunk base to form a drum.