Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/The Cocoa-Nut Palm and its Uses

By C. R. LOW.

COASTING along Ceylon and the Malabar littoral, the voyager will notice the tall palm-trees, which appear as if growing in the sea, and will learn, on inquiry, that they are of the variety Cocos nucifera, or the loving cocoa-nut tree.

Though the sight of these never-ending groves may at length pall upon the eye of the traveller, yet he will do wisely if at eventide, while the ship is becalmed, he should take the "jolly" boat and land on the silent beach. In a few minutes he will stand in a "grove of palms," and must be of a somewhat stolid temperament if he does not feel something like a new sensation, as he looks aloft and listens to the rustle of the first breath of the sea-breeze, as it gently waves the graceful fronds or leaves overhead. Those who have been in the East will, as they read these lines, recall the sound, and with it, perhaps, may be brought to mind many pleasant days and the faces of old friends who sleep beneath the southern cross. Those who have not strolled under the welcome shade afforded by the fern-like canopy, will remember Thomson's lines:
"Sheltered amid the orchards of the sun,

Where high palmettos lift their graceful shade,
Give me to drain the cocoa's milky howl,
And from the palm to drain its freshing wine."

There are many varieties of the palm. Among them the Caryota urens is the most ornamental, with its long, pendulous clusters of dark-red, succulent, acrid berries. The pith of this tree yields a species of sago, and the sap is commonly employed in the Deccan as yeast for raising or fomenting bread. There is also the travellers' palm, or crab-tree, from which a watery juice is extracted, and which, crowning the summits of hills, forms a picturesque object on the landscape, with its broad, fan-shaped leaves. The date-trees of India and Ceylon neither possess the loftiness nor the beauty of foliage of those growing in such luxuriance on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, in Mesopotamia, and indeed seldom bear fruit. The areca-palm, which is cultivated in most parts of India, and is indigenous on the Malabar coast, furnishes the "betel-nut," which, mixed with "paun," forms a composition which the Hindoos are in the constant habit of chewing.

There are five well-marked varieties of the cocoa-nut.[1] The Tembili, of which there are different descriptions, is a very well-formed, handsome nut, of oval form and bright-orange tint. The Buddhist priests of Southern India and Ceylon generally contrive to keep a store of the choicest kinds of the Tembili in their temples as offerings to the passer-by, who is expected to make a return. The Nawasi is slightly heart-shaped, of lighter color than the preceding, and bears an edible husk. On stripping off the outer rind, the inner skin turns to a pale-red color, and is fit for use. There is a third variety of nut, somewhat small and round, and in color much resembling the Tembili. Then there is the common cocoa-nut, so well known to every urchin; and, lastly, we have the double (Ladoicea Seychellorum), which, as its name implies, is a product of the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean.

In old times the most marvellous medicinal virtues were attributed to nuts of this description, and they were considered unfailing antidotes to all kinds of poison. As their origin was veiled in obscurity—those obtained being either caught-up floatings at sea or on the coasts of the Maldive Islands, where they were thrown up by the tides and currents—the most extravagant sums were asked and obtained for them. Thus it is recorded that the Emperor Rudolph II. offered 4,000 florins for one which chanced to be for sale, but, the bidding being considered insufficient, the precious nut passed into other hands. It is even said that a merchant-ship, with her freight and stores complete, has been bartered in exchange for one.

The natives believed that the trees producing these nuts grew at the bottom of the sea, and were enchanted palms, which vanished the instant the adventurous diver attempted to reach them. Death was awarded to any one who, having found one of these nuts on the shore, failed to make it over to his sovereign. The kernel was the part supposed to possess miraculous medicinal qualities, and with it were mixed such anomalous ingredients as pounded antlers of deer, ebony-raspings, and red-coral dust.

At the present day, when these cocoa-nuts are exported from the Seychelles Islands, cups made from the shells are mounted by the wealthy natives of India with gold and precious stones; the religious mendicants of Ceylon also set a high value on the shells, and use them as alms-boxes to attract the contributions of the faithful.

The palm bearing the common cocoa-nut attains, in situations favorable to its growth, a height of from 60 to 80 feet, but rarely exceeds a diameter, at the base, of from one to two feet. The roughness of the bark is caused by the progressive falling off of the fronds, as the tree shoots upward. But this roughness and the crookedness of the tree (for a straight palm is rare indeed) are compensated by the beauty of the foliage of the crown. "Here," says Mr. Lord, "the graceful, fern-like leaves may be seen in every stage of development—the lower tiers drooping, those above spreading out feather-like, while the centre stands up plume-like in all its beauty." The nuts grow in clusters, and the number on one tree varies from 40 to 200 in different stages of development. The "spathes," which are thrown up among the young leaves of the cocoa-palm, and on which grow the blossoms, are often nearly four feet in length and six inches in circumference. In favorable seasons these spathes or plumes of flowers are shot forth every four or five weeks, and as the blossoms drop off the young nuts are formed, affording a store of food and drink all the year round. When the sap of the palm is sought for the manufacture of toddy, or some other products, the young fronds, together with the flower-spathe, are bound together with ligatures, in order to prevent the development of the blossoms; a puncture is then made at the foot of the spathe with a toddy-knife, and numerous taps administered to the part adjoining the cut, with the handle, to set the sap flowing; a chatty, or earthen pot, is then suspended in a suitable position to receive the cool, sweet juice of the tree.

To ascend the lofty palm various methods are employed, and often has the writer watched the agile natives swarming up with rapidity by inserting the great-toe into a series of notches cut into the bark. Another method is by casting a band round both tree and toddy-drawer, who then plants the soles of the feet against the trunk, and literally walks up, "hand over fist." They also traverse the space between the top of the trees on coir-ropes, thrown across from one to the other. Early in the morning, before the sun is up, the toddy-drawer with monkey-like agility ascends the tree, lowers down his well-filled pot, which is received by a companion, who replaces it by an empty one. From one to three quarts is the general result of one night's drawing; but the trees thus treated become barren, and yield no fruit. Immediately after collection the toddy is sweet and deliciously cool, but in the course of a few hours this is changed for an agreeable acidity. It forms a refreshing drink in this state, but in twenty-four hours becomes quite sour. Toddy, when fermented, is made into arrack, a liquor which, being cheap and fiery, is greatly consumed by the poorer class of Europeans at Bombay, and is the bane of our soldiers and sailors in the presidency town.

Vinegar is made by allowing the toddy to stand for about a month in earthen jars fitted with covers. The liquid is then carefully strained, and replaced in the jars, in which is thrown a little red pepper, a small piece of the fruit of the gamboge-tree, and a pod of the horseradish, which in the East attains the dimensions of a tree. In about five weeks vinegar of a most excellent quality is the result. Not only spirits and vinegar are made from the juice, but the material known as jaffery, or native sugar, is produced before fermentation by boiling the sap to a syrup with quicklime, when it is roughly crystallized. Large quantities of this are exported, and used for sweetmeats, in the manufacture of which in great variety the natives of India are consummate adepts.

The cocoa-nut is consumed in a greater variety of ways than even the sap, and not a portion of it, or of the palm on which it grows, is without its special use. Besides the refreshing drink extracted from the young undeveloped nut, which is also made into a dye, the pulp inside the soft crust is considered a delicacy, and is used in the preparation of various dishes. The kernel, when ripe, is also treated in a variety of ways for food, and forms an important ingredient of curry. Cocoanut oil is also extracted from the ripe fruit by the natives with their primitive contrivances, in which bullocks are the motive power. When under European manipulation, iron machinery driven by steam expresses about 2½ gallons from 100 nuts. Besides its more practical and prosaic virtues of supplying food and clothing, the poets of the East have from time immemorial assigned as one of the attributes of the cocoa-nut palm-tree that it "loves to hear the sound of footsteps and pleasant voices."

In moderately favorable situations, says a writer, this species of the palm commences bearing fruit at from ten to thirteen years of age, and remains at full maturity for between sixty and eighty years, producing, on an average, about 100 nuts annually. The tree then begins to deteriorate and fall off in its yield, continuing in this declining condition for about twenty years, when it ceases bearing altogether, and dies. It is curious that while in this moribund state the famous "porcupine-wood" of commerce is obtained from its trunk; so that even in death the cocoa-nut palm is man's faithful friend, and ministers to his wants.

Many are the uses to which the tree is put while in maturity. The thatch covering the houses is made with the prepared mid-ribs of its leaves, and secured with cord twisted from the cocoa-fibre, from which also nets and fishing-lines are made. The plaited strips of the leaf supply material for baskets in which the freshly-gathered nuts are stored. Cocoa-cloth is . an article of manufacture. Torches are made by twisting together a sufficient number of dry leaflets, the end of the mid-rib serving as the handle; from these leaflets, when split, mats are woven. As to the fibrous husk of the nut known as coir, its utility is without limit. Besides floor-cloths and mats, which are generally employed in this country for offices, and from their strength of texture are unrivalled, the coir is manufactured into rope, and is extensively used on board ship; and in the "country" trading-ships of India it entirely supersedes manila and hemp, as being equally strong and durable, and infinitely cheaper.

Pipes, bottles, and drinking-vessels for native use, oftentimes polished and handsomely mounted, are made of cocoa-nuts, from which the white meat is extracted, without injuring the shell, by pouring out the milk, filling it with salt, and burying it in the hot sand until the kernel is decomposed, when it is removed from one of the three holes in the "monkey's" face. Thus countless are the benefits conferred on man by the palm, forming, as it does, one of the most useful of all the gifts of Providence. The South-Sea Islanders, we are informed by those who have been among them, make books out of the leaf-strips similar to the papyrus of the ancient Egyptians. Canoes are built of the pliable planks, which, when grooved and bored, are stitched together with coir-twine, are propelled by cocoa-wood paddles, masted with a slender young palm, and rigged with coir-cordage, which carries a mat-sail; thus, ready for sea, freighted with a cargo of nuts, oil, lamp-black, vinegar, sugar, and arrack (all the produce of the palm), and finally stored with nut-food for the voyage, the sole remaining requisite to make a successful commercial venture, but one that man cannot command, is a propitious breeze.—Food Journal.


  1. "The Cocoa-nut Palm," by W. B. Lord, R. A.