1.2.2 Coconut palm
The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, is botanically grouped in the
same subfamily Cocoideae as the oil palm. Although it is long since cultivated
in all tropical regions, it originates from the South-West Pacific and
South-East Asia; a region which is still the main producer.
For optimal growth, the coconut palm needs an average annual
temperature of about 26° C with only small amplitudes between day and
night. Therefore, even along the equator good yields are only realized below
altitudes of 750 m. At sea level, the area of cultivation extends at least 150
north and south of the equator; in the Pacific it even reaches the subtropics.
Where the plant depends on rainfall, 1250 to 2500 mm per year are seen as
optimal. Good sunshine conditions are also necessary.
Figure 3: Coconut palm (a) unripe
fruit with endosperm beginning to grow, (b) ripe fruit, (c) germ after 3 months,
Me - mesocarp, EM = embryo, En = endocarp, Esp = endosperm, Kei = germ, Ha =
Source: S.Rehm, G. Espig, 1984, p. 87
World production of coconuts and copra (the dried, but otherwise
unprocessed flesh of the nut) has only increased moderately over the last decade
and currently stands at about 35 million tons. The "Far East" countries
(including India and Sri Lanka) together with the Pacific region produce almost
90 % of this volume, Latin America and Africa share the rest about equally. Most
important single producing countries are Indonesia (over 10 million tons p.a.)
and the Philippines (about 8 million tons p.a.). For coconut oil, local demand
is very high in Indonesia; therefore, the Philippines clearly are the leader in
the market with a share of over 50 %. Africa as a whole contributes less than 3
Apart from faster ripening and shorter stems, breeding efforts
aim at resistance against diseases (e.g. Iethal yellowing which has done
tremendous damage in the Caribbean). Crossings with so-called Malayan Dwarfs
have given good results in this respect. Major pests are the rhinoceros beetle
and a number of other leaf eating beetles and caterpillars.
The cultivation of coconut palms starts with planting the whole
fruit, leaving just the upper end above the surface. On germination, the embryo
forms a so-called apple" (which is also consumed fresh). After about 4 to
5 months, the first roots leave the fibrous mesocarp. Planting distances for
commercial plantation are about 9 m for high growing and 6 to 7 m for low
growing varieties. Undercropping or double-use by grazing is common and can be
the most economic land utilization.
A full-grown coconut palm yields 30 to 50 nuts per year with
8000 nuts per ha and year counting as a good harvest. Low growing hybrids
usually have smaller nuts but can yield between 200 and 600 fruits per year.
To gain coconut oil, the fibrous husk is often separated from
the nut. The nut is then split, usually with a bush knife, the flesh taken out
and dried. Drying takes place in the open sun or in simple copra kilns which are
fired with the coconut shells. The result is copra which has an oil content of
65 to 70 %. Maximum yields for new varieties are 9 tons of copra per ha, from
which 6 tons of oil can be extracted. The actual extraction of the oil from
copra is described in other chapters.
Coconut oil contains an extremely small percentage of
unsaturated fatty acids. It therefore has a high melting point (22 to 26°
C) and does not become rancid. It is therefore highly valued in warm climates
and in others used for cakes and pastries. Other than for food purposes, the
main use is quality