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The Coconut Palm: Oceania's Tree of Life

Our dreams and visions of the islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Caribbean are almost always silhouetted by coconut palms. But there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this tropical tree. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is arguably the most useful plant in the world. In fact, throughout Oceania, it is commonly called “the tree of life.” In the days before modern commerce and transportation, it was absolutely essential to survival for the islanders living there.

A sunny beach, lined with palm trees

Unfortunately, this spectacular plant cannot be grown throughout the entire world. It only thrives in the wet and humid oceanic and coastal regions of the lower latitudes. Within those regions though, its range is very extensive and includes islands and coastal sites in the tropical Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. 

The Origin & Evolution of the Coconut Palm

Evidence indicates the species originated in the coastal area of southern Asia, in the Indian Ocean sector. As humans began to spread out, they purposefully introduced coconut trees to their new homes, leading to the modern distribution throughout Oceania. When Europeans eventually arrived in Polynesia, they recognized the immense value of the species and brought the coconut tree to the Caribbean Islands, perhaps in the 17th century.

He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself, and a heritage for his children.
—South Seas Proverb

As the above proverb implies, every part of this tree is useful. If you were ever shipwrecked on a deserted island and discovered coconut trees growing, you could have a relatively easy and pleasant period of survival until rescue arrived.

A man taking an axe to a large pile of coconuts with a smile on his face

Fruit, Fronds & Fibers: The Palm Tree's Myriad Uses

When you analyze the human uses and products obtained from this species it is almost mind-boggling. To start, the fruit offers excellent nutrition by way of an energy-rich sterile liquid. Natural coconut water is not only a great way to quench your thirst, it also contains sugars and salts making it analogous to a commercially produced sports drink. The internal flesh of the coconut, or endosperm, is composed of high-quality protein, healthy saturated oil, carbohydrates, and fiber. Fruit is present in all stages of development, so there is always usable fruit available from each tree throughout the year.  

A large amount of coconuts laid out on a grassy field, palm trees in the background

Once the liquid and meat are consumed, the leftover husks can be used to produce a very strong hemp-like cord or rope, and the internal hard shell can be fashioned into storage containers or simple cups and bowls. The fronds of the tree, actually giant leaves composed of separated leaflets, can be used as thatch for roofs and woven into secure walls, baskets, hats, fans, and even sails for outrigger canoes. The fibrous trunks, which are adapted to withstand hurricane-force winds, are extremely durable and can be used in the construction of homes and boat sheds. In modern times, coconut oil has become an economically valuable international commodity and is important in the production of foods, cosmetic items, and numerous industrial products.

A person relaxing in a hammock by the beach, enjoying the cool shade of the coconut palms

One should also appreciate the coconut palm because it is graceful and beautiful, and offers great shade in the hot, tropical environment. However, don’t get too relaxed. The coconut is one of the biggest and heaviest fruits in the world and it would hurt a lot if… well, let’s just say don’t sleep directly under a coconut tree! 

Encounter the coconut palm on a tropical expedition in Polynesia.