The history of the coconut tree and its fruits is as ‘tasteful’ as the fruit itself. The name was coined by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who derived it from the Iberian word ‘El Coco’, which referred to a mythical hairy monster (similar to the hairy nature of the fruit). The suffix ‘nut’ was added to refer to the seed-bearing palm.
According to research, the palm is native to the Ganges Delta in Asia. There are a number of studies that also claim the fruit has its origin in the north-western region of South America, although some of the fossils found in New Zealand indicate that the palm thrived along the New Zealand coast as far back as 15 million years ago.
In Asia, research reveals that the fossils unearthed in Kerala, the ‘Land of Coconut Palm’, are much older. However, the fossils found in Khulna, Bangladesh, are recognised as the oldest.
There you go, complete confusion! Anyway, in Kenya, the trees are predominant at the Kenya coast.
The coconut palm tree bears the coconut fruit. The tree trunk of a palm can grow to 1 to 2 feet in diameter. It has no branches but carries a crown of leaves of about 70 to 100 feet above the ground.
The fruits hang at the bases of the leaves in clusters of about 10 to 15. A tree may produce 200 coconuts a year, but the average is just around 40. A palm tree begins to bear fruit at the age of about 6 years, reaching its full bearing age at 20 years.
The coconut has a smooth greenish covering. Within the outer shell is a fibrous husk one to two inches thick. The inner shell is brown and hard. When the coconut is still young it contains a large amount of fluid or juice – this is what the coastal people of Kenya call ‘Madafu’. When the coconut matures, most of the fluid is absorbed and its flesh thickens and hardens.
Every part of the coconut including its fruit is useful. Apart from its traditional uses as a crucial ingredient in food and as a source of cooking and hairdressing and massage oil, the coconut cake, after the milk and oil are extracted, can be used as feeds for animals and organic manure.
Coconut juice is also used as a nutritious, refreshing drink, especially for those people with kidney problems, because of its high levels of alkalinity. The sap is fermented into an alcoholic beverage or into vinegar. Young leaf shoots may be eaten as a salad.
In the coastal town of Mombasa, the fibre from the coconut’s husk is used to make mats. The leaves of the tree are used to thatch roofs and to make hats, baskets, and fans. The trunk is used for canoes, posts, rafters, and fences.
But it is the shell of the coconut fruit that caught our attention recently when we came across some fantastic art pieces. Besides the usual ladles and cups, the shell is used to make some amazing ornaments, accessories and decorative objects ideal as souvenirs. Apparently, more sculptors prefer the coconut shell to wood because it is, by nature, regarded as waste once juice and meat are removed – this makes it easily available.
Next time you are at the Kenya coast, see if you can get yourself a beautiful picture frame or ornament made from coconut.