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EARTH, WIND, AND FIRE: WEATHERING THE ELEMENTS WITH THE COCONUT TREE

WRITTEN BY SARAH SCHULTZ

MASTERS IN THE ART OF SURVIVAL, coconut trees have been around for millions of years, surviving— even thriving—in harsh conditions and natural disasters brought on by an ever-unpredictable Mother Nature. In fact, this tree arms us with tools we need for survival, too.

Coconut trees are nature’s jack-of-all-trades and a completely renewable resource. In one fell swoop, they can provide a family or community with potable water, a caloric food source, rope and shelter supplies, charcoal for cooking, and topical and internal medicines.

KUMU NUI | THE GREAT SOURCE

The Hawaiian term for coconut, kumu nui directly translates to “great source.” Every anatomical part of the tree holds incredible value, from the trunk down to the coconut itself. Coconut trees can live for the better part of a century, and they’re always in season. The tree is constantly producing fruit, or drupes, that can be harvested at different points in their lifecycle for specific uses.

At six months, pop one open and sip on the refreshing, electrolyte-filled water. Wait a few more moon cycles, and you’ll have a mature coconut that’s ready to eat. There are several layers to a fully mature coconut: an outer skin, a husk, a hard inner shell, and the edible inside. Fresh copra (coconut meat) packs a big vitamin-and-mineral punch, and can be made into dairy-free milk or cream. A current craze in both cooking and beauty care, coconut oil is also made from processed copra.

After about 14 months, coconuts will naturally drop from the tree and, if future generations are lucky, will take root. According to ancient proverb, ”He who plants a coconut tree, plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for himself, and a heritage for his children.” Lovingly known around the world as ‘the tree of life,’ ‘the tree of a thousand uses,’ and ‘the most sustainable plant on earth,’ the coconut tree graces us with its gifts, all the while defying nature.

EARTH | FINDING SOLID GROUND

Many farmers and landowners hand-plant coconut in various types of soils, but nature has a way of spreading the seeds, too. When a mature coconut drops, it may be swept out to sea and washed ashore on a near or distant shoreline. It can remain buoyant for up to 120 days, protected by coir until it’s ready to germinate on land.

Handy and versatile, coir is the stringy husk between the outer skin and hard inner shell. Once primarily used for ropes and kindling, it’s now a large commercial industry. From scrub brushes to your welcome mat, coir is cultivated for a range of products. It’s also a common gardening supplement, as its nutrient dense, fibrous quality aerates the soil and helps seeds to grow. This is exactly what nature intended it to do—it was designed to house the inner part of the coconut, protecting it from intruders and salt water while granting it safe passage on its journey.

Once sprouted, a baby coconut palm will grow rapidly and can begin fruiting within six years. Reaching great heights and producing dozens of coconuts year round, coconut trees have the ability to thrive in environments that are inhospitable to others: rocky shores and sandy beaches. These grounds force a shallow, yet thick, root system unique to this genus of tree, and act as an anchor in the (likely) event of a storm.

WIND | PREPARING FOR A HURRICANE

We’ve all seen the newsreel: gusts of winds, torrential rain, debris swirling through the air. And a shoreline dotted with palms that bend to the elements—but rarely seem to break. Coconut trees are found in tropical regions close to the Equator—which, in the Atlantic, is known as the hurricane belt. From solid root systems to nimble trunks, they’ve evolved for millions of years to take these storms in stride.

Technically speaking, coconut trees are trees—but they have more in common with certain types of grass. The supple trunk, or stem, is an intricate network of strong, sponge-like fibers, which gives it tons of flexibility. Standing at 50-80 feet tall, the palm stem can bend 40-50 degrees without snapping. When milled for lumber, the sheer strength and malleability of these fibers make them well-suited for shelter, furniture, and canoes. Gusty winds and heavy downpours are no match for palm fronds, either. Engineered for such inclement weather, the tough leaves have a central spine, allowing the fronds to fold in half so water pours right off. Their durability and resistance to water makes them ideal for thatched roofs, too, which provide welcome respite from rain.

TIP: If you’re hunkering down for a hurricane, grab a rack of coconuts for emergency food and water; they can be stored in a cool, dry place for weeks at a time, depending on maturity.

FIRE | HANDLING THE HEAT

In addition to adapting to sandy soils and rough tropical storms, coconuts can take some heat. While the tree is easily set ablaze (think nature’s tiki torch), coconuts may actually withstand wildfires, thanks to the hardy inner shell.

Used in home kitchens for thousands of years, the husk and shell can be burned for kindling and charcoal, respectively. That activated charcoal supplement in your medicine cabinet? It’s likely made from coconut shells. Activated charcoal is made by adding oxygen to charcoal, and is known for its ability to bind to various poisons, heavy metals, and toxins and flush them from the body.

THE FUTURE | LOOKING TO SUSTAINABILITY

Natural disasters are increasing at unprecedented rates, causing ecosystems to shift and resources to dwindle. Renewable, sustainable resources like the coconut tree are important to note in the current climate. The more we understand about the resilience and sustainability of what’s in front of us today, the more we begin to understand its value for the future.

Want to see them in action? Book a tour at Punakea Palms on Maui. You’ll leave with a first-hand appreciation of the coconut tree in all its glory—and a quart of freshly made coconut milk in hand. Tours operate rain or shine. [eHI]