Garden to Table
March 25, 2012
High in fiber, low in sugar and rich with potassium, the coconut is a healthy and diverse “drupe” (a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed) grown mainly in the tropics. The coconut is versatile and harvested for its meat, oil, water and milk.
Coconut palms grow best in sandy or light loamy soil that isn’t waterlogged, but is near a water source. Nuts planted horizontally produce better seedlings than those that are planted vertically. The nut is planted about 15 cm deep with soil around it but not totally covering it, allowing what is called the “germinating eye” to be exposed. Bright sunlight is best for growing, along with regular watering.
Nuts take about 16 weeks to shoot. At about 30 weeks, seedlings can be planted in permanent sites in bunches that are about four to five meters apart. Trees can begin to yield fruit anywhere from five to nine years, depending on the soil condition, reaching full maturity in 12 to 13 years. Once a fruit appears, it takes about eight to 10 months to mature.
Coconuts are usually harvested by people, or cut by knives at the end of long bamboo poles. The pole method, according to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops & Plants Products, is much faster, allowing a harvester to pick from 250 palms in a day. Or, nuts can fall naturally and are simply collected. After harvest, the fruit is husked – sometimes at a rate of up to 2,000 nuts per day. That is when the nut is split and cured by sun-drying, which reduces moisture content from 50% to below seven percent, and forms the edible flesh or “copra”.
Coconut oil is extracted from the copra portion of the coconut and can be used in making food products, moisturizers, soaps and fuels. Coconut water is a clear, fat-free and electrolyte-rich juice that comes from young coconuts (usually around seven months of age). Coconut milk is produced from grating the coconut meat of older coconuts and is a rich, white liquid containing oils and fat, often used as an ingredient in cooking.
Fresh coconuts can be stored in a cool temperature with high humidity for one to two months, however, they are susceptible to drying and mold. Alternatively, the coconut can be stored for two weeks at room temperature. Like any other fresh fruit product, coconuts can taste slightly different based on the climate and soil conditions where they were raised.
Coconut palms are grown in more than 80 countries throughout the world, with the majority growing in the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Brazil. In the U.S., coconut palms grow primarily in Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.