COCONUT: Natures Swiss Army Knife

Natures very one first aid kit In one neat package: a high-calorie food, potable water, fiber that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that can be turned into charcoal. It is no wonder the coconut was revered in many cultures, but just where did the coconut originate? No one really knows. Early Sanskrit writings from the 4th century BC as well as Tamil literature dating from the 1st-4th century AD mention the coconut tree. Coconuts were featured throughout the Hindu epic stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata (from the Puranas of India). The southern coast of India became familiar with the coconut long before the country’s northern region and it was adopted even later into Aryan rituals. The coconut has a prominent role in Indian ritual and mythology. It so closely resembles a human head (with eyes, mouth and fibers for hair) that it was known as sriphala (or fruit of the gods). The coconut palm was held in such high esteem that no one dared cut one. The fruit has a special mention in the Mahavamsa texts of Sri Lanka too, dating back to the 1st century BC.

Fossils found in New Zealand are indicative that the palm thrived along the New Zealand coast as far back as 15 million years ago. In Asia, fossils have been unearthed in Kerala, the ‘Land of the Coconut Palm’, that are much older. The oldest fossils of coconut palm have been found in  Khulna, Bangladesh.

The coconut quickly became a popular traveling companion often being pitched aboard ships for flotation and sustenance. Marco Polo mentions the coconut existence during his travels, referring to it as the “Pharaoh’s Nut” in Egypt. Accounts mentioned by Antonio Pigafetta, aboard one of Ferdinand Magellan’s five ships, wrote of the coconut after reaching Guam where they were greeted the native tribes who had coconuts as weapons, masks, and armor. They were so impressed with the fruit that they carried enough to be transported back to Spain. We can credit these explorers for the name ‘coconut’. The name was derived from the Iberian ‘El Coco’, which referred to a mythical hairy monster. The kernel and hair around the fruit probably generated the connection. The suffix ‘nut’ was added to refer to the seed-bearing palm, as most other tree seeds are referred to in the English language. The name stuck, and today the whole world benefits from the presence of the palm and fruit.

With such a rich history in traveling it is no surprise that the fruit tree can be found as far north as Norway, where the people have for centuries ensured that the seed germinates under the right, ‘created’ conditions. With such care being taken to preserve the fruit it is happy to return the favor, Pigfetta wrote that a family can be sustained by merely two coconut trees, and that the tress would take care of them for a 100 years. Today, the coconut is even referred to as the tree for the soul because of the sustenance that it can give to whoever wishes to grow and nurture it.

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