Its constantly growing commercial value has led to extensive cultivation of the coconut, especially in the Malay Archipelago, Sri Lanka, and India. The coco palm is one of the most useful trees in existence, every part of it having some value. The fruit, either ripe or unripe, raw or cooked, is a staple food in the tropics; the terminal bud, called palm cabbage, is considered a delicacy; the inner part of young stems is also eaten. The milk of the young nut is a nutritious drink. A sweet liquid obtained from the flower buds ferments readily and is used as a beverage, both when fresh and when distilled to make arrack; it may be boiled down to make various palm sugars, e.g., jaggery. The leaves are used for making fans, baskets, and thatch. The coir (coarse fibers obtained from the husk) is made into cordage, mats, and stuffing; it becomes more buoyant and elastic than hemp in saltwater. The hard shell and the husk are used for fuel. The fibrous center of the old trunk is also used for ropes, and the timber, known as porcupine wood, is hard and fine-grained and takes a high polish. From the nutshells are made containers of various kinds—cups, ladles, and bowls—often highly polished and ornamentally carved. The root is chewed as a narcotic.
Commercially the greatest value of the coconut lies in the oil, which is extracted from the dried kernels of the fruit. The nuts when ripe are apt to spoil or become rancid; therefore when they are gathered they are broken open, and the flesh is dried and exported under the name of copra. The oil content of copra ranges from 50% to 70%, depending upon the method of drying. Coconut oil, the major type of palm oil, has been extracted by mortar and pestle in Asia since antiquity; the coconut and the olive are the earliest recorded sources of vegetable oil. Primitive methods of drying and expressing the copra are giving way to modern machinery such as rotary driers and hydraulic presses. The residue, known as coco cake, makes excellent cattle food, as it usually contains a remnant of 6%–10% oil. Large quantities of shredded or desiccated coconut made from copra and many whole coconuts are exported for use chiefly in the making of cakes, desserts, and confectionery.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.