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Cocos nucifera L. (Kew Gardens. Photo P. Pavone)

Cocos nucifera L.

Area of origin and cultural areas - Native to tropical eastern regions, today it is grown both over the Asian continent (India, Ceylon, Indonesia) and in Central and South America (Mexico, Brazil); in Africa, the largest producing countries are Mozambique, Tanzania and Ghana.

Etymology - The name Cocos probably derives from a Portuguese word meaning monkey, perhaps because its nut, bearing three germinating pores, resembles a monkey face. Its specific name derives from Latin, meaning nut-bearing (from fero = I bear and nux-nucis = nut).

Botanical description - The coconut palm is a long-lived plant that may live as long as 100 years; it has a single trunk, 20-30 m tall, its bark is smooth and grey, marked by ringed scars left by fallen leafbases.

The leaves, from 4 to 6 m long, are pinnate; they consist of linear-lanceolate, more or less recurved, rigid, bright green leaflets.

The inflorescences, arising at leaf axils and enveloped by a carinate spathe, are unbranched spadices; female flowers are borne basally, male flowers at apex. Flowers bear lanceolate petals, 6 stamens and an ovary consisting of 3 connate carpels.

Cross pollination, either anemophilous or entomophilous, occurs.

Its fruit, as big as a manís head and 1-2 kg in weight, is a drupe with a thin, smooth, grey-brownish epicarp, a fibrous, 4-8 cm thick, mesocarp and a woody endocarp; as it is rather light, it can be carried long distances by water while keeping its germinability for a long time.

Inside it contains one seed, rich in reserve substances located in the endosperm which is partly liquid (coconut milk), partly solid (flesh).

When its embryo germinates, its radicle breaks through one of the three germinating pores, visible from the outside as well.

 Ecology - The coconut palm thrives on sandy, saline soils; it requires abundant sun light and regular rainfalls over the year.

Uses - The coconut palm is perhaps the widest-grown palm in the world, coconuts feature as one of the main sources of income for producing countries, in that a large number of different products utilised and appreciated in the western countries as well are made out of them.

However, other parts of this plant are used too, notably its leaves to make baskets, roofing thatch etc., apical buds of adult plants are an excellent palm-cabbage, an alcoholic drink known as Toddy or palm wine is extracted from its sugar sap, tapped from the inflorescences by means of apposite cuttings.

Coconuts are used as whole fruits or, conversely, by their parts: mesocarp fibres, milk, kernel (or flesh), husk.