coconut tree

The coconut palm: Cocos nucifera

My posts on coastal South Karnataka or on botany wouldn’t be complete without a post on the almost revered (here in India) coconut palm. It must have been among my first few sights after I was conscious enough to explore outside my grandmothers house. I remember woven fronds of the coconut palm acting as rain shields in the open sitting area called the jagali in Tulu. Coconut was part of every meal and coconut oil was involved in many of the folk medicines and hair oils and also used for massage.

When the whole family congregated at grandma’s house for summer vacations,

The coconut sprouts where it falls in the monsoons or can be sprouted artificially by floating it in water asfter which it can be transplanted
The coconut sprouts where it falls in the monsoons or can be sprouted artificially by floating it in water asfter which it can be transplanted

often understandably, the single toilet was insufficient and we small kids were sent into the fields bordered with coconut trees and would perch on the mound of earth surrounding the circular pit around the coconut tree. Sounds of dry coconuts hitting the earth with a thud and the scraping sound of dry fronds as they coasted to the ground were familiar background noises during summer vacations. Sometimes we would be sent scurrying to retrieve the coconuts and useful fronds (used to fire the bath water pot called a gurkae) before some one else robbed our unguarded fields which were only lined with waist hight mud walls. Another childhood memory is of seeing coconuts (with their husks on) bobbing in a small concrete tank left soaking till they sprouted after which they would be re-planted wherever necessary.

The coconut is called a tengina kaai in Kannada and a tarai in Tulu.  A gontu tarai is a coconut in which all the water has dried up. Back home, a peradhane (Tulu) or heriva mane (Kannada) is usually used to grate coconuts.

The circular pit around the coconut tree. In this case it is overgrown and in need of maintenance
The circular trough around the coconut tree. In this case it is overgrown and in need of maintenance

Usually a shallow circular trough 2 to 3 feet wide is dug around the tree. The excavated soil is then piled around the circumference of the trough to form a mud embankment about 10 cm’s in height. This trough is cleaned up of debris and the embankment repaired once a year during the monsoons and often fish fertilizer, salt and leaves of some plants such as gobbara tappu ( In Tulu ) which transliterates to ‘manure/fertilizer leaves’ are spread out in the trough. These are usually used for fencing and can be easily propagated by cutting the stem into short foot long pieces and sticking them partly into the ground. The leaves are then pruned every monsoon and spread out in the pit surrounding the coconut tree. Due to this annual maintenance, the ground in the trough is relatively softer and helps cushion the coconut as it it drops to the ground while being harvested from tall trees.

Oil from dried coconut has a variety of uses. Apart from being used for cooking, medicinally and as a massage or hair oil, it is also used as a carrier for medicinal properties of various herbs which are steeped in it. I recently read about and also tried oil pulling. This is a technique which involves pouring two tablespoons of organic coconut oil into the mouth and swishing it around the mouth for about 20 minutes. It is said to penetrate plaque and absorb toxins from the teeth. After 20 minutes it is spat out. Oil pulling is used as an alternative to brushing teeth and many people seem to be using this technique.

Coconut oil, like coconut, goes rancid quite fast and must be stored properly in an air tight container. Just got an update from my mum in which she says that grandma used to add about a quarter teaspoon of raw fenugreek (Methi in Hindi) seeds to a quarter liter of coconut oil. This kept it from going rancid in the hot and humid climate back home without using any artificial preservatives. You can read some more information on my post on Drying coconut for extracting oil or for long term storage.

These small immature coconuts which fall off the tree either naturally or due to rodents or insects are called tendel's in Tulu
These small immature coconuts which fall off the tree either naturally or due to rodents or insects are called tendels’ in Tulu

The tree needs an enormous amount of water and lack of water shows up in the quality and quantity of the yield. I’ve often seen my uncles and aunts -before they got diesel and electric pumps draw 10 or more kodapana’s (see following pic) of water from the well and pour it around the base of each tree. We have not used the our coconut tree for tapping Neera (unfermented) or toddy (fermented) obtained by tapping the flower bud of the coconut tree, but my friend from Kerala said that they do this on a regular basis. Trees which are used for harvesting tender (or green) coconuts are usually reserved for that purpose as it is considered bad (damaging) for the yield of the tree to harvest tender coconuts from a tree  set apart for harvesting mature coconuts in which the meat is fully formed. Similarly, trees set apart for toddy (kali, pronounced cully in Tulu) will only be used for it. There are varieties of bonda (as the tender or green coconut is called in Tulu) used specifically during illnesses. One of them is the Gendali bonda which is yellow in color and is purchased for a sick person. It is more expensive than the normal bondas’ which are available. However, drinking too much coconut water – as in 5 bondas, could give you the looosies as it is also a mild laxative. The liquid can also stain clothes permanently!

Interestingly, the roots are used as a dye and also as a datun or twig toothbrush like that of the Miswak tree. It is also used as an antidote for poisoning due to ingestion of tapioca grown alongside a poisonous plant. More on that in a separate post on tapioca.

There are various kinds of coconut trees both heirloom & hybrid (yuck!) specified by their height or by the number of years they take before starting to bear fruit.

An modern aluminium kodapana with tradition coconut coir rope for drawing water from the well.
A modern aluminium kodapana with tradition coconut coir rope for drawing water from the well.

I’ve seen termites often building their nests on the trunk of the tree and we used to wash off their nests by scraping them off and dousing them with water to encourage them to move out. I’m not sure whether this happens to sick trees. There is a beetle which is known to damage the flowers and prevent the tree from bearing fruit. I’ve often seen my aunts rapping a wooden foot ruler on the table or ground or two wooden strips together as the beetles are supposed to find this noise annoying and fall down from the tree. I’ve personally seen this happen -the beetle’s falling down. This could probably be the coconut leaf beetle.

Back in school, in our Hindi textbooks, this tree was called the kalpavruksha, the divine wish fulfilling tree as per Hindu mythology on account of its innumerable uses.

The shell of  the coconut palm after the flesh has been removed is often used for burning. Although it does not combust easily,  once it catches fire it burns very hot with a hissing sound like a primus stove and helps other denser firewood and kottalige (the thick tapering coconut leaf stalk) catch fire.  I remember it being used in charcoal powered irons when I was a kid. Whenever any animal fell into the well and died, it’s body was fished out and several coconut shells would be set on fire. When the fire almost went out and the coconut shells were red, they would be dropped into the well and we would hear a faint hiss as it hit the water. I think the charcoal that it formed absorbed any bad smells from the water. Of the two halves (gadi in Tulu) of the shell, one of  the halves has 3 black depressions of which one of them is soft enough to be pierced. In fact, you can easily Pierce the soft depression with a blunt tool and drain out  the water before breaking open the coconut.  This half of the coconut is called the ponnu tippi – transliteration, ‘girl – half shell’ for obvious reasons. When we were kids before flashlights became cheap, and had to go from my grandmother’s house to my aunts house about 50 meters away, we would be given a ponnu tippi each, with a candle stuck inside which we would hold in front of us like a flashlight, the shell shielding the light of the candle from our eyes thus enabling us to see clearly in the dark. The hole in the shell, enables the wind to pass through and mum recounts that the candle would stay lit even in strong winds. When they would reach church during Christmas or New year’s eve, they would extinguish it and hide it under a bush which they would later retrieve and re-light to find their way home.

The "eyes" of the coconut. The shoot comes out of one of the eyes, so it is soft enough to be pierced by a blunt object.
The “eyes” of the coconut. The shoot comes out of one of the eyes, so it is soft enough to be pierced by a blunt object.

The coir from the husk of the coconut is mainly used for making ropes. We have  always had coconut coir ropes to draw water from the well- still do! Thinner ropes can be used for weaving items such as doormats. The husk is also used for burning but doesn’t burn as well unless it is bone dry. The coir is also used in bedding and mattresses. I remember my uncle using short pieces of rope to make a bamboo skeleton for the pandal (shamiana) for my cousin sister’s wedding reception. He’d wet the rope before tying it as tight as he could. He told me that as the rope dries, it would further shrink, making the tie really tight. Coir from the coconut husk was also used as a pot scrubber and for applying oil to the griddle when cooking dosas’. Tea made from coconut coir seems to be effective for inflammatory diseases. Wikipedia says that in Pakistan coconut is used to treat rat bites.

A coconut frond, called a madal in Tulu. The central thick part is called the kottalige and the ribs on the leaves are called korndu
A coconut frond, called a madal in Tulu. The central thick part is called the kottalige and the ribs on the leaves are called korndu

The dried leaves of the coconut called voli are bunched together and folded in half and burns easily, vigorously and pretty hot and is used between the tinder and firewood to help the firewood to faster. It was also used to make torches called thootae for night travel before the advent of electric flashlights. It doesn’t rot easily and thus was also used for thatching houses and to create barriers to keep out the rain or build an awning during the monsoons. It was also used to setup partitions in a room.

I know that I will never be able to post all that I have learned in a single post, nor will I be able to do so at one go, so these cluster of posts will be under construction for at least some time to come, until I feel satisfied enough to strike out this line from this post.

Coconut Postlets:

CREDITS: | Manorama Soans | Prabhavati Kunder | Rohini Mathias | Sunayana Walters | Sukumari Furtado Charles Furtado |

 

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