Saturday, May 19, 2012

What ARE Coconuts Anyway???

On my marathon visit to the Chicago Field Museum, I geeked out most over the plant models.  There are cases and cases of gorgeous models of representative members of lots of plant families.  I, of course, amused myself by trying to guess what family was represented in each case without looking at labels.  It turns out I have forgotten quite a bit of Botany since my days at MTSU.  Time for a little refresher course.

The plant models didn't photograph well, due to the dim light, glaring glass, and lack of likely appeal of subject matter to the rest of the world.  However, I couldn't resist taking this picture of a coconut model:

Coconut model at the Field Museum.
Coconuts are completely strange to most people who live in temperate climates.  We don't tend to eat lots of them, and we rarely even see them.  If we see them, they are big brown woody balls in the produce section, or they are tiny flakes of sugary white in the baking aisle.  When we go to the beach and a real coconut washes up on shore, we don't believe people when they tell us what they are.  Well, here's your chance to stop feeling so uninformed when it comes to coconuts.

Coconuts are the fruits and seeds of the coconut palm.  A complete coconut is green or brown, oblong and bigger than a football.  The brown woody thing in the produce section is the innermost part of the fruit plus the seed of the coconut.  The whole fruit is made of layers of fibrous husk called coir.  The fruit is less dense than water, so it floats.  You may have noticed that the scratchy brown doormat outside your front door is made of coir.  Coconut palms often drop their fruit where waves can wash them into the ocean, and the fruits can then be dispersed out around the world to grow somewhere else.  The outermost two layers of the fruit are removed before whole coconuts are brought to our stores.
Field museum coconut model with labels.
Each coconut fruit contains one giant seed, which is almost entirely white with a paper thin layer of seed coat around it.  The seed contains an embryo, which can grow into a new palm, and endosperm, which is a food source for the growing embryo.  When the seed is first formed, the embryo is microscopic, and the endosperm fills up most of the space inside the seed.  The early embryo is slightly sweet and crunchy.  As the coconut starts to get larger, the endosperm becomes somewhat more gelatinous and is known as green coconut meat.  When the seeds are nearly mature, the endosperm forms solid endosperm around the outer edge of the seed and liquid endosperm inside the seed - coconut meat and coconut water.  A mature coconut seed will also contain some air, which helps it float in the ocean.  All stages of coconuts can be eaten, and they all taste coconutty, slightly sweat and delicious.  Coconuts contain a high proportion of saturated fat, unusual for a plant but much more common in butter and animal fats.

If a coconut escapes consumption by a human and floats off to a new land, it will begin to germinate.  The embryo enlarges into a root and a shoot, and it escapes the hard coconut shell through structures called eyes that look like dimples on the surface of the coconut.  As the embryo starts to grow, it forms a mass inside the coconut called a coconut apple.  The mass is soaks up the nutrients from the endosperm and transfers those nutrients to the growing shoot and root of the embryo.  The coconut apple is also edible - in fact it's considered quite delicious, though I have unfortunately not tasted it.

Writing about coconuts is definitely making me want to conduct some field research about the gastronomic virtues of the various stages of coconuts!  Anyone up for a Caribbean vacation?

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