Cracking the Coconut
Crop Coconut Center of origin: PAC-T, SAS, SEA

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.

Conserving forever in genebanks

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Breakdown of genebanks conserving Coconut

The Crop Trust has supported 5 projects for Coconut

  1. Italy: The Crop Trust supported the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) through Bioversity international to organize a research training workshop for coconut embryo culture technicians, aimed at reviewing coconut embryo culture protocol used in different laboratories, and making recommendations that will enable the testing and validation of an agreed protocol, by a range of coconut embryo culture laboratories under different conditions.
  2. Italy: The Crop Trust supported the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) through Bioversity international to collect, transfer and grow coconut embryos from the International Coconut Genebank for Africa and the Indian Ocean (ICG-AIO) in an attempt to test and validate the coconut embryo culture protocol agreed by coconut embryo culture technicians, in 3 COGENT network countries; Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
  3. Cote d’Ivoire: The Crop Trust supported the International Coconut Genebank for Africa and the Indian Ocean (ICG-AIO) managed by the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique (CNRA) to produce viable embryos from 12 unique coconut accessions hosted by ICG-AIO, for use in testing and validating the coconut embryo culture protocol agreed by embryo culture technicians, in three International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) countries.
  4. Samoa: The Crop Trust supported the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Samoa to survey seven islands and islets as well as to plant a few selected islands with Niu afa coconut variety, in an attempt to conserve this variety using the polymotu concept.
  5. Sri Lanka: The Crop Trust supported the Coconut Research Institute to evaluate 20 indigenous coconut types for yield components, drought tolerance and resistance to certain pests and diseases. The project also resulted in the production of self-pollinated coconut varieties that are conserved in genebanks and farmers fields.