Friday, May 10, 2013

"I've got a lovely bunch of..." revisited

Species name: Cocos nucifera

Common name: coconut palm

Location: Dominican Republic

If you think you've seen this before, you're partially correct. I have blogged about the coconut palm before, and you can read about it HERE. This was before I had really decided what I wanted my blog to become, and when I took the photograph that I used I certainly had no idea it would one day become a blog post. I figured it would be fitting while I was back in the Dominican Republic to take a new set of photos of a coconut palm and do this properly. So here it is!

The location where the coconut palm is native is currently a heated debate. There is pretty strong evidence that the tree originated around or near the Indian Ocean, since many of the uses of coconuts date back to ancient times in India. There's also more to it than that; there are also fossils from the Eocene period, 35 to 55 million years ago, in Indian rocks that depict species strikingly similar to coconut palms (these are also found in Australia). To complicate matters, coconut palms have also been used for centuries by various groups of people in South America, and there are fossils there, too, that depict coconut-like fruit in rocks that are even older than the Eocene period. So who wins? I'll let one of the experts decide that; I'd rather not have either India and Australia mad at me or all of South America :) Regardless, it's not native to the Caribbean and yet is one of the most important crops there.

Coconut palms require very unusual conditions for growth and germination of their seeds (coconuts are really seeds!). First, they have to be exposed to tremendous amounts of sea water. This helps rot away some of the hard fibrous outer husk to reveal the inner seed coat. This coat then needs to be cracked, either by the growing plant or through the natural abrasion of coconuts crashing in the waves against rocks, in order for the new plant to establish itself. The growing conditions are equally unusual: they require full sunlight, very hot temperatures, high humidity, sandy soil, and high salinity. None of these conditions on their own are very conducive to plant growth, and when you add them all together it's miraculous the plant can grow at all. When you consider the habitat in which the seeds are deposited, this should be a no-brainer that coconuts have evolved to tolerate and thrive in these conditions. They thrive on hot sandy beaches where the ocean is ready to take away the coconut fruit, transporting them along ocean currents to a new beach where they can crack open and establish themselves.

Aside from their obvious edible uses, one of the most exciting uses of coconuts is in the medical field. "Medical field?!" you say? Yes, the medical field. Coconut water is gaining popularity as a sport drink to restore electrolyte balance in the body. Does the average person need to drink it? No. Just like the average person has absolutely no use for the high-calorie and high-salt beverages bearing the names "Gatorade" and "Powerade." High-performance athletes like professional athletes or people on high-performance teams absolutely DO require some sort of electrolyte replacement. Nothing will replace your lost body water than water, but if all you're drinking is water while sweating buckets for 2-3 hours (in some cases 5 or 6 hours, depending on the sport) you're going to start feeling dizzy and get muscle spasms. This is your body trying to tell you that you're losing too much sodium and potassium (amongst other things) to be sustainable and it needs more. Enter: sport drinks. These are absolutely chock-full of salts and sugars (as well as some complex carbohydrates, but those are by far fewer in number than sugars) to replace what you're using and to give you a short burst of energy. "Normal" people who go to the gym for an hour a day definitely don't need sport drinks! So what does this have to do with coconut water? Well, it's been shown that coconut water has an almost perfect electrolyte balance in it that is in synch with what the body needs. Replacing your lost fluids, at least some of them, with coconut water is significantly more beneficial than a sugar-filled sport drink.

Now, you might be scratching your head and wondering how this was discovered in the first place and what sports drinks have to do with medicine. I always appreciate an inquisitive mind! Would you believe me if I told you that one of the first uses of coconut water in modern civilization was as a blood plasma replacement? Not only is coconut water completely sterile as long as the husk is intact, it also has that perfect body balance of nutrients and vitamins to be able to replace fluids lost through illness or massive trauma. During World War II it was mixed with blood units to dilute the blood (since it was so badly needed; they had to make what little blood they did have go further to treat more wounded soldiers) but still provide all of the benefits of blood plasma, then it was administered through IV to the wounded soldiers during surgeries. It can also be used as "IV fluids" either prior to surgery when the patient isn't allowed to eat food or drink liquid, or when the patient is having trouble keeping down food and water and requires replacement fluids. Coconuts aren't just good for making Bounty chocolate bars!

The last mysterious use of coconuts that many people know about but don't realize they do is as a commercial fibre source. These aren't fibres you can use to make clothing; coconut fibre clothing would feel similar to burlap if worn against the skin so I can't imagine that would be all that pleasant. Coir, what we call the fibre we get from coconut husks, is most often used as a matting material. Most of those brown scratchy "Welcome" mats you buy to put outside the door are made of coconut husks, as are a lot of the "fluffy" potting mixes that come with boxed bulbs like amaryllis bulbs. The "peat pellets" that you can buy at garden stores to start seeds indoors before transplanting outdoors are also often made at least partially of coir; they can be pressed into very small pellets and when put into warm water can absorb water and expand to be hundreds of times the original size of the pellet. It's actually a fascinating process to watch!