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Description and Cultivation

The coconut palm is one of the most versatile plants cultivated on earth. The slender trunk may be up to 25 m in height and the fan-like leaves 3-7 m long and 1 m wide with a weight of 10-15 kg. Some 20-30 leaves form the rosette crown that is typical of the coconut palm.

The ripe coconut is as large as a child’s head and has three flat sides. It is a drupe (stone fruit) and has several layers. It is enclosed on the outside by a thin, yellow-brown leathery skin with a fine wax layer, under which there lies a thicker, reddish-brown bast layer of coconut fibres. This layer encloses a stone-hard shell which contains the fruit. The latter consists of a 1-2 cm thick layer of white fruit flesh that is firmly attached to the inside of the shell. The fruit is hollow and contains a watery, sweet-tasting liquid coconut milk.

The coconut palm can stand high salt levels in the air; it generally grows in coastal regions where the majority of plantations are also located. In inland areas coconut palms are found mainly along rivers. Prior to plantation cultivation, the coconuts are placed in special nurseries to germinate, and are then planted out after six months. They flower when young, but do not bear mature fruit for the first six to seven years. After fifteen years the palm produces an annual yield of 50-100 nuts for a period of seventy years. The fruits ripen one after the other and are harvested throughout the year. This is done either by hand, by the native population climbing the high coconut palms and cutting off the ripe fruits with a knife, or by using long sticks so that harvesting can be done from the ground.

The most important areas of cultivation and export countries are the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Mexico and some of the islands in Oceania. A large part of the harvest is consumed within the countries of origin.

The coconuts are freed from their fibrous layer, cracked open with knife and either sun-dried or smoke-dried. This causes the white, very fatty fruit flesh to loosen from the shell. The fruit flesh is allowed to dry until it contains only 5-7 % water. In this state is called copra and can be transported over long distances without any deterioration in quality.

Coconut oil

The coconut fibres and the copra are the components with the greatest commercial significance. Coconut oil is mainly extracted from copra in the countries of origin. With a fat content of 63-70 %, 650 gr of coconut oil can be obtained from 1 kg of copra.

Coconut oil is highly saturated and solid at room temperature. The main fatty acid is lauric and the composition and use resembles that of palm kernel oil, the only other lauric oil of commercial significance. It is used in the manufacture of ice cream and margarine as well as in bakery and confectionery fillings. The oleochemical industry is using coconut oil for the fatty alcohols and soaps.