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How to open a coconut

March 30, 2012

The coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera, Arecaceae) is a symbol of the tropics, and so there is a lot of literature and websites dealing with botanical knowledge about coconuts. What about hands-on experience? Providing a mixture of farmers’ experience and academic knowledge is the aim of Dokmai Dogma and Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Browsing the internet takes time, and there is a huge range in quality of the information, so I hope some day Dokmai Dogma will be the beginner’s guide to the monsoon garden. Therefore we also tend to include knowledge which seems very basic, and we have had many adult visitors asking for example which part of the rice you eat, if corn cobs are underground and if it is the fruit or the flower that comes first. It is our pleasure to guide you right:

Yesterday morning I climbed up a ladder to harvest a couple of coconuts. This is best done by wringing the fruits until they detach. No need for heavy tools. Is your coconut tree too tall? Youngsters would climb anyhow, some would use trained monkeys, pole saws and telescope clippers are other options, but do not cut the top shoot thinking you can prune it like an apple tree – the palm will die! Better select a ‘dwarf’ when planting a coconut, i.e. a slow-growing coconut which makes fruit already when small. A Thai dwarf is ‘ma prao nam hom’ (meaning ‘the coconut with fragrant water’).

A young and tender coconut fruit which starts turning yellow has a seed rich in coconut water and some white flesh (endosperm). If you want more flesh and less water, then wait longer with harvesting. This fresh fruit weighed 1930 g.

Start by cutting off the fruit’s top using a heavy butcher’s knife. A novice should wear leather gloves. The outer husk is not woody hard, it is quite soft.

Cut off the bottom and then start making longitudinal cuts (following the direction of the fibers) and remove the husk sections with your hand. The purpose of this thick porous husk layer is to keep the fruit afloat when dispersed by the waves of the sea. The total amount of husks was 1230 g (64% off the entire coconut fruit) or half a shopping bag. This material is precious to the tropical gardener who can use it in hanging baskets for ferns and orchids. The powder is a good material for mango grafting.

Here is the coconut seed visible. The shell of the seed is much harder than the husk, and at the end which used to be attached to the tree are three pits (germination pores). The germinating root will use one of these as its exit hole. In the 16th century Portuguese sailors brought ‘Indian nuts’ to Europe, referring to them as ‘coco’ in Portuguese. That was the name of a ghost, as dry, brown coconuts with their holes looked like grinning faces.

Put a bowl under the dehusked seed (the weight is now 700 g). Hold the seed with one hand and turn the knife upside down (to avoid that you cut off a finger with the sharp edge) and crack it open by hitting repeatedly along the equator of the seed. This seed contained 380 ml of coconut water. The remaining two halves weighed 300 g without the water. The water is a delicious and nutritious drink. It is part of the food supply for the plant embryo.

To harvest the kernel (the solid endosperm) use a sharp spoon like those metallic Chinese spoons. This coconut contained 120 g of fresh kernel. When dried this kernel is called copra. You can also use a coconut stool to grate the fresh kernel. If you squeeze the fresh grated kernel through a cloth you get coconut milk.

Successful toys do not have to be expensive. Take two top halves of coconut seed shell, make holes through one of the eyes of each half, tie a cotton string to a piece of a barbecue stick at both ends…

…and start walking!

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Supervisor: Nived Seehamongkol.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Cooke permalink
    March 30, 2012 1:15 AM

    As a kid (UK) I would see one of these about once a year after coming back from a fair. My parents left them to us for hours of fun trying to get the things open. We always started trying to get the milk out through one of the three holes, didn’t always succeed and usually smashed them with a hammer.

  2. March 31, 2012 8:09 AM

    Anders Palm, Thailandspecialisten, reports that a common reason for tourists seeking medical attention in the tropics is their failed effort in opening a coconut….

  3. Gill Bates permalink
    April 9, 2012 11:05 AM

    Naturally, we only had the brown processed coconuts but we drilled a hole to drain the juice, only to discover years later all you had to do was poke out one of the “eyes”, or two was even better, to drain it. Live and learn.

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