28 Nov 2012

The Coconut Palm Tree (Cocos nucifera)

By: Jorge Ventocilla

How many coconut palm trees are out there? Right here next to Biomuseo we have a lot!

When you think about the tropics, coconut is definitely something that comes to your mind. The origin of the coconut palm tree is subject of a debate. For some botanists, its origins can be traced back to Asia; for some others, to the Caribbean. Undoubtedly, sea currents are an excellent way for its seeds to travel.

Coconut palm trees need plenty of sunlight and thrive in coastal areas. This is not because they need salt or something similar, but because shade from other trees is not good for them. That is why they grow close to the sea, where few plants can grow because of the harsh conditions.

Since ancient times coconut palm trees have been used in multiple ways. Estimates show there are approximately 500 million coconut-producing palm trees. The height of the tree depends on environmental conditions and the age and type of the palm. The top of the palm is not too wide and it is comprised of up to 30 arched leaves. In favorable conditions, an adult plant produces between 12-14 leaves per year. The coconut palm tree begins producing fruit the fifth or sixth year after being planted and all year round after that. Fruits take almost a year to ripen. The palm tree has a life span of 40 years. Production is at its prime when the tree is 10-15 years old.

Coconut milk is very refreshing and very similar to the glucose solution given in hospitals. The white fleshy part of the coconut is edible. It is used for making chocolate and also in bakery goods (cocadas*…yummy!!!). When the whole coconut has been sun-dried, it is called copra; from which a type of industrial oil is extracted. This oil is rich in palmitic acid.

Panamanian native people have a variety of uses for coconut. In Buglé language it is called “ebda”, in Ngäbere, “kogo”. The Naso people call it “mek” and cook the roots and use them for back pains. The Kunas call it “okop” and have been trading with it for over 200 years. They have identified at least three varieties: okop arrat, gidnit y gorokwat. Tule masi is the most distinctive dish of the Kunas and it is a soup made with bananas, yucca and coconut, it also has smoked or boiled fish, lemon, peppers and salt.

Okop was Kuna Yala’s main export product during the 20th century; however, a disease known as porroca has caused a significant decrease in the production since the 90’s: the coconut palm begins producing stiff, dwarfed leaves, usually followed by the death of the tree within 2 years. The disease was discovered initially in Colombian coastal areas and, in the early 80’s it was already found in Panama. The fact that it is spreading through Central America and the Caribbean is a major concern.

A research team from University of California, Santa Cruz, under the leadership of Dr. Gregory Gilbert, has been studying porroca in Kuna Yala since 1998. They have found that the disease is spreading as much as 40 km per year. To know more about the investigation, go to: Download PDF

Currently, the Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (SENACYT) is supporting the research on exploration and sustainability of coconut in the communities of Punta Patiño, Darién; its objective is to investigate and demonstrate the potential uses of the coconut for energy, medicine and production of hygiene products. This means new jobs for local people and the prevention of degradation of natural resources in the area. Visit: www.ancon.org (“projects”) to know more.

 *cocada is a typical Panamanian confection made with coconut.

English translation: Sara I. Melo