Coconut

(Cocos nucifera) The name comes from the Portuguese coco, meaning a grimace, for the nuts are said to resemble a human face (Lehner). In India, the coconut was offered to the gods instead of a human head (Upadhyaya), and there are tales in Malaysia of the coconut originating from a human head. Mabuchi has this story from Simalut : "Once there were two brothers, Rabin and Rachman. Their father died and left a lot of debt. The people deprived the brothers of all the property, but the brothers still had to get out of the remaining debt. Thus, they fled from the village to the jungle, where they made a patch of field. The elder brother said to the younger: 'Let us dig a hole in the ground. Cut off my head and bury it in the hole'. The younger brother was reluctant to do so. But at last he could not refuse the request of his elder brother. He saw a tree growing there. He took fruit of the tree and tasted the juice and the pulp. He planted many of these fruits there, while he brought a number of them to the village where his father had lived. The villagers had never seen this kind of fruit, and they found it delicious. This was the coconut. Because the coconut originated from the head of the elder brother for the benefit of the people, this could well counterbalance the debt left by the father". There are many other origin myths showing how the coconut grew from a head, human or otherwise (see J Campbell. 1960 for quotes), from the Pacific islands. This one from Tonga is typical: 'A male child, Eel, was born to a human couple, who had also a pair of human daughters. Eel, living in a pool, sprang towards his sisters in eager affection, but they fled, and when he pursued them they jumped into the sea and became two rocks that may be seen to this day off the shore of Tonga-tabu. Eel went on swimming, to Samoa, when he again took up life in a pool. But when a virgin, bathing there, became pregnant because of his presence, the people decided to kill him. He told the girl to ask the people to give her his head when he had been killed, and to plant it, which she did. And it grew into a new sort of tree, the coconut tree', which is a symbol of fecundity in India. Women who want a son are given a coconut by their priest, and in Gujarat the bride gives a coconut to the bridegroom (Upadhyaya). The myth of the coconut deriving from an eel lover is common throughout the south Pacific. Another typical story is one from Tahiti: 'Hina, whose gods are sun and moon, is betrothed to a chief who has an eel body. She flees to the god Maui for help, He baits his fishhook, the eel swallows it, Maui cuts up the body and gives the head to Hina to take home and plant. Hina forgets and puts the head down while she bathes at Paui, and the head sprouts into a coconut ...' (Beckwith. 1940).

The "eyes" of the coconut feature in Trobriand myths telling of how the spirits became invisible to humans. Malinowski quotes two examples : when the spirit's feelings were hurt by some human act, she (the spirit) decided to go and live in Tuna, the underworld. "She then took up a coconut, cut it in half, kept the half with the three eyes, and gave her daughter (the human) the other. 'I am giving you the half that is blind, and therefore you will not see me. I am taking the half with the eyes, and I shall see you when I come back with other spirits'. This is the reason why spirits are invisible, though they themselves can see human beings". The "eyes" appear again, even though in a negative way, in a Malayan belief that when the nut lacks the usual three "eyes" it could act as a protection in warfare against the enemy's bullets, an obviously magical charm (Skeat).

Malayan peasants used to say that coconuts should only be planted with a full stomach. The gardener had to run quickly and throw the coconut into the hole made for it without straightening his arm; if he did straighten it the fruit stalk would break. They should be planted in the evening, so that they will bear fruit while still near the ground. When you pick seed coconuts off the tree someone should stand below to watch and see if the "monkey face" of each nut turns either towards himself or to the base of the tree, in which case the seed will be good, or looking away from both, in which case it is not worth planting (Skeat).

The many virtues of the tree made it a favourite candidate for identification as the Tree of Life in the 17th century, for, as Raleigh said, "the Earth yeeldeth no plant comparable to this", such a tree as "giveth unto man whatsoever his life beggeth at Nature's hand" (Prest). Almost every part of the tree is useful: when the nuts are green, the milk makes a refreshing drink; later, when they are ripe, they are covered with a husk of coir which can be used to make rope and such things as doormats, as well as providing a pestfree compost material for gardeners. When the nuts are ripe, they can provide copra, which is the dried fruit, used for soap making and many other products. Cooking oil can be extracted from it. The fronds of the tree have many uses, mats to make a hut wall, or thatching, basket making. Fronds can also be stuck upright in the ground to make a fencing around a courtyard (Caplan). In India, they are a major source of sugar-rich sap. It is the main flower spike that is tapped. A few hours after collection, this sap will have fermented to an alcoholic drink called palm wine, or toddy, which must be drunk the same day, or it will ferment again to become a sour vinegar. Palm wine can be distilled to a spirit called arrak (Edlin. 1976).

Cocos nucifera > COCONUT Coeloglossum viride > FROG ORCHID

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