Master Gardener Shows Many Uses for Coconut Palm

Sept. 10, 2008 — Coconut palms are known to many people in the tropics as the "tree of life," because virtually the entire tree has a practical use in everyday life.
That's according to Master Gardener Marilyn Cook, whose topic for Wednesday's Grow and Learn workshop at the St. George Village Botanical Garden was the many uses of the coconut palm.
The Master Gardener program, according to the American Horticultural Society, provides avid gardeners hours of intense home horticulture training, often through university Cooperative Extension programs. The gardeners then give back by volunteering in the community.
Cook told the group she got interested in practical uses for local plants during the 30 years she spent sailing around the world, 20 of which were spent in the South Pacific.
"I'd arrive on an island and ask, 'What is this plant? What do you use it for?'" she said, indicating people were happy to share their knowledge.
She learned about many plants and tasted many local delicacies, although some weren't to her liking — such as the fully ripe breadfruit, if her turned-up nose at the workshop was any indication. But she kept seeing examples of people relying on coconut palms from top to bottom.
She began by discussing the top of the tree, the leaves (commonly and incorrectly known as fronds — only ferns have true fronds) and branches.
A main example are thatched roofs. She demonstrated how women in the South Pacific weave palm leaves, which are then laid in rows over a wooden frame to make a roof. The woven leaves are tied into place using coconut husk fiber rope, and the result is a water-tight roof, where rain runs off even in the heaviest storm, she said.
She also mentioned products familiar to Virgin Islanders: baskets and birds woven from green palm leaves.
When she would arrive on an island, she said, locals would want to show her their gardens, which were invariably a long walk uphill from the village. Once there, a child would shimmy up a coconut palm with a machete, cut off a leaf, and in a few minutes "a woman would weave a basket complete with shoulder strap to carry fruits and vegetables back down the hill," she said.
Stripped branches make excellent skewers and marshmallow sticks, she said.
She also discussed palm hearts. Not those little sticks in cans from the grocery store, but a section from the growing bud and inner core of a fully grown coconut palm, which can weigh as much as eight pounds. A palm heart is a "crispy, coconut-flavored, tender addition to a salad," she said. But Cook cautioned that removing the heart kills the palm, so people should harvest it only from trees being destroyed because of development or the like.
Coconut-palm flowers, which emerge from canoe-shaped sheaths, are used in the South Pacific to make liquor and sugar, she said. People smash the flowers and hang buckets under them to catch the clear liquid that drips for about 24 hours afterward. That liquid can be fermented into a toddy or boiled to make palm sugar, a soft brown sugar, Cook said.
People are most familiar with products derived from the coconut itself, mainly coconut milk and shredded coconut, and she shared easy ways to shed coconut husks and open the nuts.
Virgin Islanders may not be aware that the "water" inside green coconuts is sterile, delicious, full of nutrients and keeps for months, she said. Medical personnel in World War II in the Pacific used coconut "water" as sterile glucose IV drips to great success.
In a ripe coconut, the nutrition is in the meat, Cook said. Tapping on a halved coconut will eventually cause the meat to fall right out, and the brown exterior side should be pared off before grating.
Squeezing grated coconut through a cheesecloth gives coconut cream, about 60 percent oil, which is a delicious addition to ice cream and other foods. Coconut oil can be separated out by boiling the cream. Adding boiling water to the cream results in coconut milk, she said.
There are many other uses for parts of the coconut palm, from coir to copra to cups and bowls to mattress stuffing, she said.
Cook wound up her presentation by offering the audience freshly made coconut cookies.
Garden Botanical Director David Hamada said coconut is so rich in nutrients — iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, folic acid — because the nuts support life for as long as a year, floating in the ocean or piled in someone's backyard, before sprouting. Coconut contains no cholesterol or trans fats, Cook added.
The next event at the garden will take place Saturday, according to Hamada. As part of its Second Saturdays educational program, children and their parents are invited to learn how to make paper from plants. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon in the Bodine Visitors' Center. Reservations are essential; call 692-2874 to sign up. There is a $5-per-person fee for the workshop.
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