Pacific islanders call the coconut palm “tree of life”, because of its many different uses including food, fodder, construction material and medicine. About 50 million people make their living from growing coconuts; about 42 million of these are in Asia. Coconut palms often form the last frontier of the coastal forest towards the shoreline, and provide environmental protection and shelter from extreme weather.
There is large variation within coconut, from the wild types to all the different cultivars found around the tropics. Some famous types with obvious characteristics include Jamaica Tall and Malayan Dwarf, but apart from height there is a great deal of diversity in fruit color and shape, flower pattern, thickness of husk, size and thickness of flesh and water content.
It is said that the coconut has 1,001 uses. The nut’s white flesh is used either fresh or dried in cooking. Coconut oil has many uses. Coconut milk is made by processing grated coconut flesh with hot water or hot milk. The cavity of the nut is filled with coconut water, containing sugars, fiber, proteins, anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals, forming a nutritious and exceptional refreshing drink. Sprouted seeds may be eaten like celery and the interior of the growing tip of the plant may be harvested as heart-of-palm and is considered a rare delicacy.
The husk of the nut, which is a mass of packed fibers called coir, can be woven into strong twine or rope. The fiber is resistant to seawater and is used for cables and rigging on ships, for making mats, rugs, bags and brooms. The hard shell is widely used for bowls and other objects. The leaves provide material for baskets and roofing thatch, and the wood provides excellent timber for construction.
Coconuts are subject to many fungal diseases, bacterial infections, and the lethal yellowing disease. Breeders are working on breeding for resistance to these diseases, and also for tolerance to physical stress such as drought or waterlogging, and the ability to withstand extreme weather.
Coconuts collections are generally conserved in field genebanks. Many national governments hold important coconut germplasm collections in their research stations, but safe and economical means of transporting disease-free coconut genetic resources are needed, limiting distribution to breeders and slowing progress. To date, 22 countries have conserved, characterized and registered their data on a total of 1,416 sample palms in the International Coconut Genetic Resource Network (COGENT) managed International Coconut Genetic Resources Database.