COMMON NAMES: Coconut, Coconut Palm, Cocos Palm, Dab (Bengali), Green Gold, Ha’ari, Kokoh, Mabang, Naral (Marathi), Obi, Palmeer-baum, Suphala (Sanskrit), Tengu (Kannada)
Cocos nucifera is a slender palm that can grow up to 100 feet tall. It has pinnate leaves that may grow up to 20 feet in length and large fruits (coconuts) which grow in thick clusters between the leaves (Ratsch 1998, 170).
It is thought that the coconut tree first came from Asia. However, there were coconut trees in Mexico before the first Europeans arrived there. Coconut palms spread when coconuts fall into the water and are carried away and wash up on sandy beaches, where they grow. In order to plant a coconut palm, bury up to half of a coconut lightly in sand. After about five months, the fruit will develop roots and a shoot. After six to twelve months, the seedling may be planted in the desired location. Wrapping the coconut in a plastic bag left partially open speeds up this process (Rehm & Epsig 1996 cited in Ratsch 1998, 170).
TRADITIONAL USES: In tropical regions, coconut palms have been used to create food, fiber, inebriating beverages, and other raw materials for over three thousand years. Even now, the coconut palm is one of the most economically and culturally important plants in the tropics, and provides 8% of the planet’s oil and fat (Udupa & Tripathi 1983 cited in Ratsch 1998, 170).
The Polynesian peoples carried coconuts with them on seafaring journeys as an easily transportable source of water and food, and planted them when they reached new islands in order to sustain future settlements. The fronds of the coconut palm are still used to create shelters, mats, fans, and other implements. The fronds may also be dried and burned to create lime, useful for its highly basic nature. The trunk of the coconut palm is very durable and salt resistant, and may be used to make drums, small boats, houses, furniture, and other structures (Lien n.d.).
In India, coconuts are thrown in to the sea as an offering to calm the gods who cause monsoons. In Tantric practices, coconuts may be offered to the goddess Bhadrakali, consort of Shiva, in place of a human sacrifice, perhaps because they are about the size of a human head. Meanwhile, Muslim tradition states that throwing bits of coconut and limestone over the heads of newlyweds will ward off evil spirits (Gahndi & Singh 1991). The Yoruba of Africa say that the coconut palm was a pure, righteous person who was transformed into a plant, and thus they hold the palm sacred.
Palm wine, prepared from live coconut trees, is used as a ritual inebriant wherever it is made, especially in New Guinea, where it is used only as part of sacred deity worship and never recreationally (Schroter, in Hartwich 1911 cited in Ratsch 1998, 170-171). Palm wine is also prepared in much of West Africa, and is used as a sacred celebratory inebriant.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Palm wine is prepared by cutting a flowering branch and placing a hollow piece of bamboo or similar object upright in the incision. The bamboo will fill with sap, and may be emptied several times during the day – palm wine collected in the morning is sweet and tastes like cider, while palm wine collected in the afternoon is much more inebriating due to increased fermentation. To prevent this fermentation, ground up sea shells containing calcium may be placed in the liquid. Palm wine which is allowed to stand for an extended period becomes palm vinegar (Guzman-Rivas 1984). In Senegal, a bark known as blundi is added to palm wine to prevent it from fermenting too much (Mane n.d.)
On the Marquesas Islands, coconut milk is fermented to make a creamy, highly alcoholic brandy. On the Rennel Island, a part of the Solomon Islands, there is a beverage made from coconut that is known as kava kava ngangi which, despite its name, contains no Piper methysticum (Holmes 1979). Coconut flakes are a common addition to Oriental Joy Pills and betel nut quids.
MEDICINAL USE: In India, the palm tree is known as The Tree of Life. Tea prepared from coconut flower buds is taken in the morning for three days to ease menstrual imbalances. Ayurvedic medicine heats coconut shells and uses the oil that is exuded to treat parasites, and coconut milk is taken for stomach pain and heartburn (Venkataraman et al. 1980).
Coconut meat and dried flakes are regarded as aphrodisiacs and treatment for general disease in tropical regions all over the world. In Indonesia, coconut shells are burned and the ashes mixed with wine for the treatment of syphilis. Coconut oil is very beneficial for the skin and is found in many cosmetics (Ratsch 1998, 171). Coconut oil is considered by many to be one of the healthiest oils, as it can be cooked to a very high heat without burning, and is made primarily of medium-chain fatty acids, which are easy for the body to digest, and do not effect bad cholesterol levels in the blood. Coconut oil also contains lauric acid, which is converted to monolaurin when eaten. The body uses monolaurin to destroy fungi, bacteria, and parasites (Lien n.d.).
The Yoruba use coconut palm oil to treat a variety of bacterial infections, including candidiasis, wound infections, urinary tract infections, and so forth. The oil also contains many free radical scavenging anti-oxidants, and may be used externally to treat tumours (Muanya 2007).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Coconut palms contain an essential oil, a wax, and oil. The sap, which may be fermented to create palm wine, is full of protein, sugars, and enzymes. Coconut water from green coconuts contains a compound called 1-3-diphenylurea, which stimulates cell growth and is extremely rejuvenating and beneficial for overall health. Thanks to this, young coconut water has become popular among Western health food enthusiasts and people following a raw food diet. Coconut flakes are rich in protein, carbohydrates, and vitamin B complex (Perry & Metzger 1980).
Palm wine has a fairly low alcohol content, and the effects of drinking it are often characterized as stimulating, refreshing, invigorating, and mildly intoxicating. The effects of fermented coconut milk beverages are similar to those of other high alcohol content liquors, and drinking too much can result in the symptoms of alcohol poisoning (Ratsch 1998, 172).
Gandhi, M., and Y. Singh. Brahma’s Hair: Mythology of Indian Plants. Calcutta: Rupa, 1989.
Guzman-Rivas, P. “Coconut and Other Palm Use in Mexico and the Philippines.” Principes 28, no. 1 (1984): 20–30.
Holmes, L.D. “The Kava Complex in Oceania.” New Pacific 4, no. 5 (1979): 30–33.
Perry, L.M., and J. Metzger. Medicinal Plants of East and Southeast Asia. Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1980.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Venkataraman, S., T.R. Ramanujan, and V.S. Venkatasubbu. “Antifungal Activity of the Alcoholic Extract of Coconut Shell – Cocos Nucifera.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2 (1980): 291–293.