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The Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the Family Arecaceae (palm family). It is the only species in the genus Cocos, and is a large palm, growing to 30 m tall, with pinnate leaves 4–6 m long, pinnae 60–90 cm long; old leaves break away cleanly leaving the trunk smooth. The term coconut refers to the seed of the coconut palm. The spelling cocoanut is an old-fashioned form of the word.
The coconut palm is grown throughout the tropical world, for decoration as well as for its many culinary and non-culinary uses; virtually every part of the coconut palm has some human uses. In cooler climates (but not less than USDA Zone 9), a similar palm, the Queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) is used in urban landscaping. Its fruit are very similar to the coconut albeit much smaller. It was originally classified in Cocos genus along with the coconut, but was later moved to Syagrus. A recently discovered palm, Beccariophoenix alfredii from Madagascar is nearly identical to the Coconut, even more than the Queen palm. It is quite cold-hardy and makes the perfect Coconut-lookalike for many cooler areas all over the world.
The coconut has spread across much of the tropics, probably aided in many cases by seafaring people. Coconut fruit in the wild is light, buoyant and highly water resistant and evolved to disperse significant distances via marine currents. Such fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable, subsequently germinating under the right conditions. In the Hawaiian Islands, the coconut is regarded as a Polynesian introduction, first brought to the islands by early Polynesian voyagers from their homelands in the South Pacific. They are now almost ubiquitous between 26°N and 26°S except for the interiors of Africa and South America.
The flowers of the coconut palm are polygamomonoecious, with both male and female flowers in the same inflorescence. Flowering occurs continuously, with female flowers producing seeds. Coconut palms are believed to be largely cross-pollinated, although some dwarf varieties are self-pollinating. The “nut” of the coconut is the edible endosperm, located on the inner surface of the shell. Inside the endosperm layer, coconuts contain an edible clear liquid that is sweet or salty or both sweet and salty.
Coconuts received the name from Portuguese explorers, the sailors of Vasco da Gama in India, who first brought them to Europe. The brown and hairy surface of coconuts reminded them of a ghost (or witch) called coco (known in castillian as El coco). When coconuts arrived in England, they retained the coco name and the suffix -nut was added.
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, Thennai in Tamil Nadu at banks of River Palar, Then-pennai, Thamirabharani, Cauvery and Mountain sides at Kerala borders,[Konaseema-Andharapradesh], 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. It is also common in Trinidad and Tobago.
The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (150 cm to 250 cm annually), which makes colonizing shorelines of the tropics relatively straightforward. Coconuts also need high humidity (70–80%+) for optimum growth, which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity, like the Mediterranean, even where temperatures are high enough (regularly above 24°C).
Coconut palms require warm conditions for successful growth, and are intolerant of cold weather. Optimum growth is with a mean annual temperature of 27°C (80.6°F), and growth is reduced below 21°C (69.8°F). Some seasonal variation is tolerated, with good growth where mean summer temperatures are between 28–37°C (82.4–98.6°F), and survival as long as winter temperatures are above 4–12°C (39.2–53.6°F); they will survive brief drops to 0°C (32°F). Severe frost is usually fatal, although they have been known to recover from temperatures of -4°C (24.8°F). They may grow but not fruit properly in areas where there is not sufficient warmth, like Bermuda.
The conditions required for coconut trees to grow without any care are:
- mean daily temperature above 12-13C every day of the year
- 50 year low temperature above freezing
- mean yearly rainfall above 1000 mm
- no or very little overhead canopy since even small trees require a lot of sun
The main limiting factor is that most locations which satisfy the first three requirements do not satisfy the fourth, except near the coast where the sandy soil and salt spray limit the growth of most other trees (Palmtalk).
The range of the natural habitat of the coconut palm tree is delineated by the red line in map C1 to the right (based on information in Werth 1933, slightly modified by Niklas Jonsson).
Coconut trees are very hard to establish in dry climates and cannot grow there without frequent irrigation; in drought conditions, the new leaves do not open well, and older leaves may become desiccated; fruit also tends to be shed.
Plant densities in Vanuatu for copra production are generally 9 meter, allowing a tree density of 100–160 trees per hectare.
Pests and diseases
Coconuts are susceptible to the phytoplasma disease lethal yellowing. One recently selected cultivar, ‘Maypan’, has been bred for resistance to this disease. The fruit may also be damaged by eriophyid coconut mites. The coconut is also used as a food plant by the larvae of many Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species, including Batrachedra spp: B. arenosella, B. atriloqua (feeds exclusively on Cocos nucifera), B. mathesoni (feeds exclusively on Cocos nucifera), and B. nuciferae.
Brontispa longissima (the “Coconut leaf beetle”) feeds on young leaves and damages seedlings and mature coconut palms. On September 27, 2007, Philippines’ Metro Manila and 26 provinces were quarantined due to having been infested with this pest (to save the $800-million Philippine coconut industry). In Kerala the major pests of Coconut are the Eriophyid mite, the Rhinoceros Beetle, the Red Palm Weevil and the Coconut Leaf caterpillar. The Eriophyid coconut mite (Eriophyes guerreronis) is devastating and can cause damages up to 90% in coconut production. The immature nuts are infested and desapped by staying in the portion covered by the Perianth of the immature nut. Subsequently the nuts drop off or survive deformed. Spraying with Wettable Sulfur 0.4% alternately with neem based pesticides can give some relief, but is cumbersome and labor intensive. Research on this topic gave no results and the researchers from the Kerala Agricultural University and the Central Plantation Crop Research Institute, Kasaragode are still searching for a cure. The /Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Kannur under Kerala Agricultural University has developed an innovative extension approach called Compact area group approach (CAGA) to combat coconut mites.
Growing in the United States
The only states in the U.S. where coconut palms can be grown and reproduced outdoors without irrigation are Hawaii and south Florida. Coconut palms will grow from St. Petersburg southwards on Florida’s west coast, and Melbourne southwards on Florida’s east coast. The occasional coconut palm is seen north of these areas in favoured microclimates in the Tampa and Clearwater metro area and around Cape Canaveral, as well as the Orlando-Kissimmee-Daytona Beach metro area. They may likewise be grown in favored microclimates in the Rio Grande Valley area of Deep South Texas near Brownsville and on Galveston Island. They may reach fruiting maturity, but are damaged or killed by the occasional winter freezes in these areas. While coconut palms flourish in south Florida, unusually bitter cold snaps can kill or injure coconut palms there as well. Only the Florida Keys and the coastlines provide safe havens from the cold for growing coconut palms on the U.S. mainland.
The farthest north in the United States a coconut palm has been known to grow outdoors is in Newport Beach, California along the Pacific Coast Highway. For coconut palms to survive in Southern California, they need sandy soil and minimal water in the winter to prevent root rot, and would benefit from root heating coils.
Coconut production in the Middle East
The main coconut producing area in the Middle East is the Dhofar region of Oman. In particular, the area around Salalah maintains large coconut plantations similar to those found across the Arabian Sea. The large coconut groves of Dhofar were mentioned by the medieval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta in his writings, known as Al Rihla. This is possible due to an annual rainy season known locally as Khareef. Coconuts also are increasingly grown for decorative purposes along the coasts of UAE and Saudi Arabia with the help of irrigation. The UAE has, however, imposed strict laws on mature coconut tree imports from other countries to reduce the spread of pests to other native palm trees such as the date palm.
The Philippines is the world leader in coconut production (2007), followed by Indonesia, and India in distant third. Pollachi and its surrounding villages are the largest coconut growing hubs in India, and is famous for the most tender coconuts in India. And, they are also famous for the coconut-based products like tender coconut water, copra, coconut oil, coconut cake, coconut toddy, coconut shell-based products, coconut wood-based products, coconut leaves, and coir pith.
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