The Coconut tree : Tree of a hundred uses
ON TROPICAL ISLANDS AROUND THE WORLD THE COCONUT PALM IS KING AND FRENCH POLYNESIA IS NO EXCEPTION. THE TREE’S GRACEFUL SILHOUETIE HAS BECOME THE SYMBOL OF A VACATION
PARADISE BUT ITS UN-QUANTIFIABLE PRACTICAL VALUE IS FAR GREATER THAN THE TREE’S ROMANTIC IMAGE. COCONUT PALMS ARE NOT ONLY AN INTEGRAL INGREDIENT OF POLYNESIAN DAILY LIFE, BUT ALSO PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN ISLAND MYTH.
A life source
For tourists, the coconut palm is synonymous with lounging on sunny beaches and splashing around in aqua waters but for the people of French Polynesia the tree is much more than a part of the scenery. The coconut tree provides food and drink including its own biodegradable bowl, fiber for rope, a material for roohng, frrewood, fertilizer and more. By examining the Polynesian language, it’s easy to see the importance of coconuts :there are several words describing the different stage of the nut as well as a slew of vocabulary for products made from the tree. The word atiu, for example, refers to the young fruit as itjust begins to form; haari moroati is the dry ripe DUI before it has sprouted; next is the haari utu stage when the interior of the nut becomes spongy as it begins to
Over 2000 years ago, Polynesians brought the indispensable coconut with them on their canoes as they made their great migrations from South East Asia to every corner of the Polynesian Triangle. The nut keeps for a very long time so it was easily transported from isle to isle where it was then pIanted. This tree, along with other staples such as the uru (breadfruit), raro and mei’a (banana), provided very important comestibles and resources. In this way the coconut made its way into the heart of Polynesian legend from Tahiti to Hawaii to Easter Island and New ZeaIand. The tree is also a visible symbol ofthe conquest ofthe Pacilic by these early navigators.
A perfect food source
Coconut has always been an important staple in traditional Polynesian cuisine. Some coconuts can hold up to one liter of clean refreshing water that is sometimes slightly lizzy and varies from being a little bit sweet to a sugary treat. Coconut water is found, as is, inside the nut while coconut milk is the juice of the grated flesh of the coconut. The coconut meat is edible in several stages of maturity from the jelly-like flesh of the young nia, which is often given to infants, to grated flesh of more mature coconuts, which can be dried and used as flour. Other treats are uto,the spon-
gy coconut flesh ball that forms inside of a just-sprouted nut and heart of coconut which is the soft, crundwy interior of a coconut tree’s trunk.
Coconut based recipes are ubiquitous in traditional Polynesian cuisine. Fresh crushed coconut meat can be heated then cold-pressed and filtered to produce coconut oil. ln ancient times this oil was burned for lamps but it also had many other uses. In some islands it was used to embalm the dead. More frequently it was used to waterproof tapa, the widely used Polynesian cloth that was made of bark. Traditional doctors often used the oil in their medicines (called ra’au in Tahitian), particularly for treating heart and kidney problems. Today as well as in ancient times, flowery scented monoi coconut oil, is used for massage. But perhaps the most unusual role of the coconut in traditional medicine was use of the ut’s shell to repair skull fractures !
A useful material for everyday objects
Coconut trees produce much more than comestibles. The shells can be used for cups, bowls and other receptacles that can be quite pretty when polished with coconut oil. When charred, the shells also make excellent charcoal. The green exterior husk of the coconut contains an astringent sap rich in tannins that can be used to tan hides. Fiber from the husks of ripe coconuts, when properly treated can be used as lilters, to caulk canoes and to start hres. When burned, husks produce a thick smoke that’s very efflcient for keeping away mosquitoes.When woven, the husk libers make excellent cord and baskets. Dried palm fronds are often used to cover taro fields as mulch and to inhibit the growth of weeds. While still green, coconut fronds can be made into a myriad of objects from roofing sheets to mats, baskets, nets, fans and for lining food storage areas. Coconut wood is very resistant and was used for structural posts or pilings for elevated huts.
Sprawling coconut plantation
Around the beginning of the 20th century, coconut cultivation became big business due to the increasing needs from Europe and the USA whose fat consumption was rising.This meant that there was a high demand for copra, the dried coconut meat. During the First World War from 1914 to 1918 copra became the number one source of vegetable oil in the world. This inspired the people of French Polynesia (primarily European settlers) to develop huge coconut plantations. Everyone who had large tracts of land planted coconut palms. This near industrial coconut farming transformed the landscape of islands throughout the country, particularly on the atolls and low islands. Ancient Polynesians only planted a limited number of palms mostly around villages. During the coconut boom local flora was replaced en masse by this near monoculture that was supplemented by cattle farming and taro cultivation.
For many years copra maintained its position as French Polynesia’s principal export. Today, Polynesian copra makes up only a fraction of the worldwide production since it’s produced much more cheaply by the competing countries of Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Even so, the government has artilicially maintained the price it gives its copra producers and the activity still supports many islanders particularly in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The industry has helped thwart trends towards outward migration from the more remote islands. Coconut plantations on more developed high islands like Tahiti have been essentially
A fine building material and alternative fuel source
Today the coconut palm as a resource is mostly linked to the tourist industry. The wood is used to make handicrafts as well as in the building of artistic “local style” tourist bungalows and hotel rooms. Artists fashion sculptures, and crafts that can be found in local craft shops or even in art galleries. Dried woven palm fronds (called niau) are one of the most visually appealing options for roofing. But the newest use for the coconut is for biofuel - as petrol prices soar,vehicIes running off of coconut oil are becoming an increasingly interesting option. Green tourist establishments in particular have realized how important cultural and ecological information about the coconut palm is. More than a symbol and more than a tree, the coconut is a life source and well merits its nicknames, a the “tree of life”, “the tree of the sky” and “the tree of a hundred uses”.
Monoï : When coconut oil meets the fragrant Tiare flower
Among the vast collection of products produced from the coconut is monoi Tahiti’s world renowned flower scented coconut oiI. The oil is made by macerating tiare gardenias in highly refined French Polynesian coconut oil. Today the oil can only be called monoi if it’s made in French Polynesia with certain production procedures, much as sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it’s from Champagne, France.
The coconut as fountain of life
ln islands throughout the Pacihc from Polynesia to Micronesia and even Melanesia, there is a similar legend about the coconut. The legend likens the nut to a man’s head, the fiber to his hair and the three holes on top ofthe nut as his eyes and his mouth. In Tahiti the coconut has also been said to have come frorn the skulls of dead children and symbolizes the fountain of life.