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Field Museum of Natural History 

Department of Botany 
Chicago, 1922 

Leaflet Number 2 

The Coco Palm 

The coco palm grows along tropical shores 
throughout the world. Its origin has at times been 
ascribed to the western hemisphere where it is found 
in places on the west coast of Central and South Amer- 
ica, but it is more likely that it belongs originally 
rather to the East Indian Archipelago and Oceania. 
Its cultivation in any case probably originated in south- 
eastern Asia where many varieties of it exist and where 
its uses are more thoroughly appreciated than in the 
American tropics. 

The fruits of the coco palm float and are readily 
transported by the sea. They will germinate even 
after a lengthy immersion in salt water, which helps 
to account for its wide distribution. On the smaller 
Oceanic Islands it constitutes the most important part 
of the vegetation and together with a few wild strand 
plants, perhaps the most constant and characteristic. 
It is however seldom encountered except in a state of 
cultivation. As an escape it may be one of the first 
of waterborn plants to arrive on newly elevated land 
or reef. On a volcanic island in Polynesia, visited 
four years after its appearance by the British man-of- 
war Egeria, the vegetation was thus found to consist 
of two young coconut palms and three other plants. 
Preferring the loose soil of sandy beaches it is mostly 
confined to them though in places it is grown away 
from the shore and even at a not inconsiderable alti- 
tude. In the Philippines it is said to have been planted 


2 Field Museum of Natural History 

up to 5,000 feet but above 1,500 to 2,000 feet, it fails 
to flourish. 

To the traveler its tall cylindrical trunk, slightly 
curved near the base, often sixty to eighty or more feet 
in height, seems to impart as nothing else a tropical 
character to the landscape. Few tropical trees can 
surpass it in utility. In some of the regions where it 
grows it supplies to the inhabitants almost all the 
necessaries of life. 

The coco palm differs so greatly from any of the 
trees of our temperate zone that its habit of growth 
and its manner of flowering and fruiting are of con- 
siderable interest. It is always produced from seed. 
For this purpose the mature coconuts are set out to 
sprout in beds on the ground, ordinarily under partial 
shade. The East Indian hangs them in baskets or 
ties them to poles or to the limbs of a tree. They are 
never embedded entirely in the soil till ready to plant, 
which is in about a year, when the roots have pene- 
trated the husk and the first leaves have appeared. 
The young plants are then set out some fifteen to 
twenty-five feet apart. During the early years of its 
life the coco palm does not differ greatly in general 
appearance from several of our small hot-house palms. 
Leaves of moderate size arise from near the ground 
and for some time there is scarcely any visible promise 
of the future lofty trunk. The first leaves are entire 
as they appear, and do not, like the later ones, split 
immediately into the characteristic feathery laminae. 
It is only after the first few dozen leaves have been 
shed and the cylindrical, woody stem becomes visible 
that the plant begins to acquire its characteristic as- 
pect, which is complete when flowering commences in 
about the sixth to eighth year. The coco palm matures 
in twenty to forty years and continues to bear almost 
continuously for sixty to eighty years longer. 


The Coco Palm 3 

The growing point of the tree is at the apex. The 
terminal bud is always present, enveloped and shielded 
by the bases of several young and unexpanded leaves 
that make up the top of the plant. The flower-buds 
are situated in the leaf-axils, one to each leaf. A 
flower-bud on its first appearance is two or three feet 
long, cylindrical and tapering. Its green color is due 
to an enveloping sheath, the spathe. As the bud 
swells with growth it bursts its envelope, the spathe 
splitting lengthwise, revealing the flowering spike of 
a pale straw color. In a few days this has freed itself 
from its spathe and has become a fully expanded 
branching spike, in general shape much like a gigantic 
corn tassel. Each of its twenty to thirty branches is 
closely set with prismatically compressed, small buds 
of a pale straw color and of a horny texture. These 
are the buds of the male flowers and soon begin to 
open, usually a few at a time on each branch, after 
which they fall off. Eventually there remains on the 
flowering spike only the female flowers, each of the 
size of a horse-chestnut and from the very first roughly 
indicative of the shape of the fruit. While the male 
flowers are rather perfect with free floral leaves, six 
stamens and a rudimentary three-parted pistil, the 
female coco palm flower seems to have suppressed all 
frills to devote itself from the beginning exclusively 
to the production of coconuts. The male flowers are 
insect-visited, but the palm is apparently wind-pollin- 
ated. Within a short time the young coconuts look 
much like huge, green acorns. They grow rapidly and 
in about a year they have attained their full dimen- 
sions. As the coconut matures, the outer envelope 
begins to turn brown and to shrink. With the shrink- 
age the well-known, roughly triangular shape of the 
fruit becomes emphasized. 

A full-sized fruit cluster consists of twelve to 


4 Field Museum of Natural History 

twenty coconuts. The flowering continues the year 
around and a tree in prime condition yields upwards 
of 100 fruits annually, distributed over four or five 
harvests. The record in the Philippines is 470 nuts 
from a tree. 

The leaves of the coco palm are attached directly 
to the main stem. They are commonly twenty feet 
or more in length. They are shed one by one as the 
fruit clusters mature and drop, or are removed, so that 
the clusters of ripe fruit are always associated with 
the lowermost leaves. Each leaf-base with its sheath 
completely encircles the central trunk, the character- 
istic ridges or roughness of which are due to the old 
leaf-scars. The dry bast-like leaf sheathes may be seen 
surrounding the bearing portion of the trunk. Split 
and partially torn away from their respective leaf 
bases, they give it an untidy appearance. Their pres- 
ence is puzzling to account for, till one observes them 
in position on the topmost leaves. There they serve 
to tie together the bundle of young leaves surrounding 
the growing tip, a matter of great importance to the 
tree in regions subject to severe winds. 

The near-ripe fruit of almost full size, but still 
green, contains a fluid, slightly milky in appearance 
and sub-acid, the "coconut milk," or "water," which 
furnishes a pleasant drink. To obtain it, one must 
cut through the outer fibrous tissue, then the inner 
dense and hard layer which, like an egg shell, sur- 
rounds the embryo plant with its stored food-material. 
At an early stage this forms only a thin gelatinous 
layer within the shell, the remainder being the fluid 
"milk." As the coconut ripens the layer of "endo- 
sperm," the botanical term for this food material, be- 
comes thicker and of firm consistence and the water 
more like milk. 

In some places a drink is obtained from the coco 

f 12] 



The Coco Palm 5 

palm in another manner. The stem and branches of 
the flower spike are tied into a bundle and cut, and 
over the cut end is fixed a vessel consisting of a length 
of bamboo. The sap which would ordinarily go to 
the formation of the cluster of fruit is obtained in this 
way. The bamboo is emptied each day, the collector 
sometimes passing by aerial bridges from tree to tree. 
The fermented juice is variously known as "tuba" or 
"toddy." Eleven million gallons of it were produced 
in the Philippines in 1913. 

The main product of the tree is, however, the white 
meat of the coconut. The mature nuts are allowed to 
fall naturally or are gathered four or five times a year 
by pulling them down with hooks or by climbing the 
trees when situated too high to be reached from the 
ground. They are collected into piles and husked by 
beating against the sharpened end of a stake or iron 
point fixed upright in the ground. They are then 
split with a bush knife or cleaver and are left in the 
sun to dry somewhat, which loosens the white coconut 
meat from the shell. The dried meat is known as 
"copra." It constitutes an important article of com- 
merce. Dessicated and grated it forms the shredded 
coconut of the confectioners, but its principal value 
depends on its oil content, fifty per cent or more by 
weight. The oil is obtained from the copra by pres- 
sure. The remaining "cake" is a valuable fodder. The 
coconut oil is at ordinary temperature, a soft, white 
fat of somewhat objectionable taste and odor. It has 
always been highly esteemed as a fat for soap making, 
but its present-day, more important use dates from the 
discovery that the addition of an atom of hydrogen to 
the molecule of fat renders it perfectly bland and com- 
estible. (See Slosson, "Creative Chemistry" for an 
account of vegetable fats.) It is now widely used in 
the preparation of butter substitutes and is consumed 


6 Field Museum of Natural History 

in large quantities in France and Germany. The 
United States imported in the month of September of 
1921, 3,000,000 pounds of husked coconuts and copra. 
The normal monthly European consumption is at least 
fifteen to twenty times as great. The production is 
capable of almost indefinite expansion. 

The husk of the coconut is also of considerable 
value. It furnishes a fibre known as coir (pronounced 
kir, Portuguese cairo from Malayalam kayar, rope, 
cord) and is one of the principal brush, belting, matting 
and rope making materials. Cordage made from it is 
rough, but light and has the virtue of floating which 
is advantageous for certain purposes, as for ship's 
cables. Even paper has been made from coir, at least 
one factory for the purpose existing in the Straits 
Settlement. Certain species of coconut are especially 
cultivated for coir, since they yield large quantities of 
fibre. Coir and copra production are, however, almost 
mutually exclusive — copra requiring the mature fruit 
while a good quality of coir must be made from the 
green husk. 

The wood of the coco palm is known as "porcupine 
wood." It is furnished only by the outer part of the 
cylindrical trunk, the central core being simply fibrous. 
Its usefulness is rather limited and restricted mostly 
to regions where it grows. The bast-like leaf sheaths 
are used for native clothing, the leaves for plaiting 
and thatching, the fibrous core of the trunk, for cord- 
age and brushes, in fact every part of this tropical tree 
is utilized. From the inner shell of the nut, dippers, 
cups and other vessels are easily fashioned. The Mus- 
eum displays a varied collection of these as well as of 
all other coconut products, such as oil, sugar, candles, 
cordage, brushes, mats. 

The Dutch East Indies, Ceylon, Straits Settle- 
ments, Philippines, India, Zanzibar, South America 


The Coco Palm 7 

and West Indies are the chief producing and exporting 
countries in order of their importance. The Philip- 
pines, for instance, produce annually about a billion 
nuts, 150 millions of which are consumed locally, and 
the remainder exported. The value of the exports in 
1913 was fifteen to twenty million dollars. A ton of 
copra, the product of about 5,000 nuts, brought them 
about $100. Large coco palm plantations often twenty 
to 100,000 acres in extent, are being established in 
various parts of the world to keep pace with the 
demand which is increasing with the decline in the 
supply of animal fats. The coconut supply to the 
United States has hitherto come chiefly from the 
American tropics, Central America, Colombia, Brazil, 
and the West Indies. The trees in this region are 
lately threatened by a fungus disease, the so-called 
"bud-rot," which has gained a foot-hold. A few coco 
palms are grown in the United States, mostly for orna- 
mental purposes, on the east coast of Florida and along 
the Gulf. The Museum specimen is a reconstruction 
within the limitations of an exhibition case, of the 
bearing portion of a South Florida palm in a well 

developed stage. 

B. E. Dahlgren. 

The exhibits in the Field Museum pertaining to the Coconut 
palm and its economic products are to be found in the Department 
of Botany, Halls 25 and 28 on the second floor.