|The coconut palm, one of the ten most important plants on the planet Earth, is a perennial oleaginous plant, cultivated in all the tropical coastal regions of the world (DUKE, 1983). It provides us with one of the world’s most useful agricultural products: the coconut (from which we obtain mainly oil and copra). Every part of the coconut palm can be used in a variety of ways, its great versatility earning it the titles “king of plants” and “jewel of the tropics”. Over 500 million coconut palms are cultivated. It is estimated that in tropical regions, in particular in India and in the Pacific, coconuts are the main or only source of fats and protein in the diet of more than 400 million people – approximately 7% of the world’s population – (LÖTSCHERT, 1990; PICKERSGILL, 1980). Without this “life-sustaining” plant, whole populations might never have existed.
100 g, of coconut contain: 36.3 g H2O, 4.5 g protein, 41.6 g fat, 13.0 g carbohydrate, beta-carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, choline and Ca, P, Fe, Na, Mg, Cu (C.S.I.R., 1948-76; DUKE, 1983).
The economy of a number of countries is based on the coconut palm. Asia generates 5/6 of total production. On the American continent Mexico has a moderate yield, while in Africa production is more limited (EYNARD and EYNARD, 1983). This plant alone provides around 1/5 of all the oils and fats on the market (MILNE and MILNE, 1967). The production centres can be divided into four areas: 1) Southern Asia: the Philippines, Indonesia (Java), India, Srï Lanka, Malaya. 2) Central and South America: Mexico, Brazil, Florida, Jamaica, Honduras, Cuba. 3) Oceania: Fiji Islands, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Salomon Islands, Samòa. 4) Southern Africa: Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Madagascar. In 1975, world production was 28.3 million tons of fruit, in 1986, 39.5 million tons. The US alone annually imports 190 million pounds of coconut oil and more than 650 million pounds of copra (PICKERSGILL, 1980; DUKE, 1983; SIMONETTI, 1990).
The coconut palm begins to bear fruit after 6-9 years, annually producing on average 50 fruits per tree. Some plants can produce more than 300 fruits in the one year. If left to ripen completely, almost every day a nut of 1-2 kg in weight falls, often from a height of 30m, which is sufficient to kill a human being instantly. The palms live for 40-100 years. Its fruits are gathered every 2-3 months, broken from the tree when ripe. Given its height, in some of the Sonda islands (archipelago between Southern Asia and Australia) monkeys are trained to remove the fruit. A skilled monkey can sometimes gather 7 coconuts in 2 minutes, and up to 500 per day. In Malaya macaques are often used to gather coconuts.
Coconut palms are subject to numerous diseases, in particular to those provoked by insect pests. For this reason it is important to quickly eliminate old leaves which can attract parasites. To improve the coconut palm’s resistance to harmful agents, it can be cross-bred with “dwarf palms”, which seem to have originated, independently, from a series of tall varieties. They are very robust plants (the “Malayan Dwarf”, for example, is resistant to a normally lethal disease where there is a progressive reduction of chlorophyll in the leaves), although they produce small coconuts of rather poor quality. They are normally 8-10 m high and begin to bear fruit in their third instead of in their sixth year. They generally self-pollinate. The strong F1 hybrids, which begin to produce early, are obtained from some of these crossbreeds.
Coconut palms grow, both cultivated and naturally, in almost all the wet tropical and sub-tropical coastal regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans in zones less than 300 m above sea level, within 15° N and 15° S of the Equator. Annual rainfall must be 7-42 dm and the temperature range from +21-30 °C. The sandy soil must have a pH of 4.3-8.0. The coconut palm needs a well-drained and well-aired soil and abundant light where competition is limited.