By Jon Letman
Let’s face it, some trees just give a little more.
Surely, if there is one tree that embodies the best in a plant—strength, resilience, beauty, nutrition, flavor and
utility—it is Cocos nucifera, the coconut palm.
“To Polynesians, coconuts are life,” says naturalist Angela K. Kepler. “For people who want to maintain spiritual
ties with the ancient ones, using the varied products of coconut palms goes a long way toward tapping into old-time survival skills.”
From frond, husk and fiber to meat, water and shell, this aptly named “tree of life” provides a veritable shopping list of important staples far exceeding the usual food, shelter, tools and medicine.
Coconuts are used to appease the gods, launch ships, reduce stress, aid in digestion, make music and even halt hiccups.
As huge, buoyant seeds, coconuts spread on their own (though never as far as Hawai`i) and colonized much of the tropics in prehistory, obscuring their true origins, though most agree coconuts first grew somewhere between the Indian Ocean and Melanesia.
Polynesian legends speak of a male eel-god named Tuna who longs to be with a beautiful woman named Sina. The story varies, but always ends the same: Tuna is killed and as he lies dying he asks Sina to plant his head in the ground, promising that from it will grow a tree that provides for all. Thus, the first coconut palm sprouted.
On south India’s Malabar Coast, the state of Kerala reveals its most prolific tree in its name—Kera (meaning coconut palm) and alam (land). Coconuts are considered auspicious across India and regularly used in Ayurvedic medicine, at temples, wedding ceremonies, the launching of a ship or the first take in a film shoot.
What Hawaiians call niu would have been easy to transport by canoe, but relatively small numbers (and only two varieties) suggest that the coconut palm may not have been introduced until later migrations. Although coconuts did not play as central a role in Hawaiian culture as on other Pacific islands, it is nonetheless easy to imagine that, upon arrival, one of the first terrestrial acts of settlers may have been to place coconuts on the ground, where they would germinate and produce a sprout that would develop into fronds and eventually a tree.
Coconut palms mature within their first decade and some varieties, at their peak, can bear thousands of nuts. Coconut palms can grow for 100 years or longer, like those towering palms at the historical Kapu-āiwa royal grove west of Kaunakakai on Moloka`i.
One of the best places in Hawai`i to enjoy a landscape of coconut palms is Kaua`i’s east side—the Coconut Coast from the Wailua River and neglected ruins of the Coco Palms Resort to Waipouli, site of the Coconut Market Place, up through Kapa`a Beach Park where the 13th Annual Kaua`i Coconut Festival will be held Oct. 3 and 4.
Another is Maui’s Kahanu Garden just before Hāna. On the sprawling grounds of Kahanu, in the shadow of the behemoth Pi`ilanihale heiau, is the Mary Wishard Memorial Coconut Grove.
Writing in 1978, Leslie Wishard explained that the collection he started in 1930 on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island had over 300 imported coconuts palms from around the tropics. From the Wishard collection, 27 varieties grouped into dwarf, medium and tall were planted at Kahanu. These included the Fijian Niumagimagi, the flat-bottomed Calabash, the diminutive Pugai, the Papua, the Trinidad and a variety called Cow’s Udder for its resemblance to
a bovine teat.
Kahanu Garden Director Kamaui Aiona points to the diversity in nut size, shape and color as one of the interesting aspects of the collection.
“The Fiji Love Nut is very small, about the size of a fist, and used in love sorcery or as a container for love concoctions,” Aiona says.
Kahanu’s Wishard collection took on greater significance after the import of whole coconuts to Hawai`i was banned in a failed attempt to keep out disease and damaging plant pests.
Perhaps no one in Hawai`i knows more about the threat coconut palms face than Maui resident Philippe Visintainer, founder of Hawai`i Coconut Protectors. For more than a decade Visintainer has been battling Phytophthora katsurae, better known as coconut heart rot disease, which was first documented on Kaua`i in 1971.
Coconut heart rot is a fungal disease that causes new fronds to dry and wilt until eventually all leaves die and only the trunk remains. Visintainer says the disease runs in cycles and is currently in an actively destructive period with the north shores of Kaua`i and Maui and Puna on the Big Island especially hard hit.
Since 1998, Visintainer has been treating palms with a system that injects a phosphorus solution into the trunk. This fertilizes the palm and, as a systemic treatment, works its way into the palm heart, creating an inhospitable environment for the fungus. He says his success rate is close to 100 percent, but adds that funding is a major challenge.
Visintainer collaborates with the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community headquartered in Jakarta and remains optimistic that his program may eventually reduce the disease to a manageable level and that he may one day start a coconut palm plantation using remaining sugar cane irrigation infrastructure.
Pointing to a three-decade gap when very few coconut palms were planted following what he describes as a misleading campaign against coconut oil by other edible oil–producing industries, Visintainer believes people are rediscovering the environmental and health benefits of virgin coconut oil.
On Kaua`i, others also see the untapped potential of coconuts for food and fuel.
Paramcharya Palaniswami of Kaua`i’s Hindu monastery in Wailua says the monks have planted some 800 coconut palms on monastery grounds with plans to add several hundred more next year. They use the coconuts as a daily food and are exploring how best to use the oil for lighting.
Palaniswami says the meat itself can be burned as fuel for indoor sacred fire ceremonies and that it burns clean, producing virtually no soot or ash.
Adam Asquith, managing partner of Kaua`i Farm Fuel, a biodiesel company in Hanapēpē, also recognizes coconut oil as an underused local resource with great energy-producing potential. Asquith’s company already makes biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil and he says coconut oil holds real potential as renewable fuel source when global petroleum prices make it economically feasible or a practical necessity.
Asquith envisions growing coconuts for oil on small plots and unused tracts of land, noting that there are already plenty of unused coconuts in Hawai`i which, rather than going to green waste, could be cold pressed (as opposed to steam extracted) for oil. Coconut oil will ignite under pressure just as petroleum diesel fuel. New coconutbased fuels are already being tested or used in places like Pohnpei, the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and Samoa, either as virgin coconut
oil (VCO) or mixed with diesel fuel as a substitute for cooking and lighting fuel.
“When I think of a transition from petroleum to renewable natural oil sources in Hawai`i, I think of coconut and kukui,” Asquith says. “It already exists as feral oil, just waiting to be harvested when the economic climate is right.”
“As a biologist, I see almost no distinction between food and fuel—it’s basically the same thing. Whether it’s burned in the body, a fireplace or a diesel engine, you are creating combustion by burning hydrocarbons.”
“You could throw a cabbage in an oven and generate heat, but it’s not efficient,” Asquith says. “A coconut is much better.”