Coconut Palm Husk or Shell (Cocos nucifera L.), Fibrous shell of the nut. Dehydrated. Some previous water infiltration and decomposition evident. Collected Culebra, Puerto Rico, late 20th century, c.e.
Botanically, a Cocos nucifera is a simple dry nut known as a fibrous drupe. The husk, or mesocarp, is composed of fibers called coir and there is an inner stone, or endocarp. The endocarp is the hardest part. This hard endocarp, the outside of the coconut as sold in the shops of non-tropical countries, 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. Adhering to the inside wall of the endocarp is the testa, with a thick albuminous endosperm (the coconut "meat"), the white and fleshy edible part of the seed.
The specific name nucifera is Latin for nut-bearing.
When viewed on end, the endocarp and germination pores give the fruit the appearance of El Coco, or Cuco, nocturnal monster or "boogyman" from Spanish folklore (also Côca, Portuguese for a witch represented as a carved gourd or vegetable lantern, hence the name of the fruit.)
The origins of this plant are the subject of controversy, with most authorities claiming it is native to South Asia (particularly the Ganges Delta), while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small, coconut-like plants grew there as long as 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Kerala (Kerala means "land of coconut palms"), Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra (India) and the oldest known so far in Khulna, Bangladesh.
Mention is made of coconuts in the 2nd-1st centuries BC in the Mahawamsa of Sri Lanka. The later Culawamasa states that King Aggabodhi I (575-608) planted a coconut garden of 3 yojanas length, possibly the earliest recorded coconut plantation.
New World Development
The coconut is indigenous to the Indo-Malaysian region. It is spread by sea currents with a maximum distance of 3,000 miles, on which the coconut will remain afloat and still remain viable for germination. There is little chance that the coconut seed reached the New World in this manner. Most authorities agree that the coconut was introduced to the New World by Portuguese and Spanish traders. 1542 is the year of introduction of coconut tree to Puerto Rico and the islands of the Anitlles.
Although coconut meat contains less fat than other dry nuts such as almonds, it is noted for its high amount of saturated fat. Approximately 90% of the fat found in coconut meat is saturated, a proportion exceeding that of foods such as lard, butter, and tallow. There has been some debate, however, as to whether or not the saturated fat in coconuts is healthier than the saturated fat found in other foods. Coconut meat also contains less sugar and more protein than popular fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges, and it is relatively high in minerals such as iron, phosphorus and zinc.
The endosperm surrounds a hollow interior space, filled with air and often a liquid referred to as coconut water, not to be confused with coconut milk. Coconut milk, called "santan" in Malay and "Katas Ngungut" in Kapampangan, is made by grating the endosperm and mixing it with (warm) water. The resulting thick, white liquid is used in much Asian cooking, for example, in curries. Coconut water from the unripe coconut can be drunk fresh. Young coconuts used for coconut water are called tender coconuts. The water of a tender coconut is liquid endosperm. It is sweet (mild) with aerated feel when cut fresh. Depending on the size a tender coconut could contain the liquid in the range of 300 to 1,000 ml.
In some parts of the world, trained pig-tailed macaques are used to harvest coconuts. Training schools for pig-tailed macaques still exist both in southern Thailand and in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Competitions are held each year to find the fastest harvester.
Death by Coconut
There have been instances of coconuts falling from palms and injuring people, and claims of some fatalities. This was the subject of a paper published in 1984 that won the "IgNobel Prize" in 2001. Falling coconut deaths are often used as a comparison to shark attacks. The claim is often made that a person is more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark, yet, there is no evidence of people ever being killed in this manner. William Wyatt Gill, an early member of the London Missionary Society on Mangaia recorded a story in which Kaiara, the concubine of King Tetui, was killed by a falling green nut. The offending palm was immediately cut down. This was around 1777, the time of Captain Cook's visit.
Non Culinary Uses
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club of New Orleans traditionally throws hand-decorated coconuts—the most valuable of all Mardi Gras souvenirs—to parade revelers. The loosely organized African-American "Tramps", club or parade krewe, began the tradition ca. 1901. In 1987 a "coconut law" was signed by Gov. Edwin Edwards exempting from insurance liability any decorated coconut handed from a Zulu float.