July 31, 2023

The Tree of Life | The Coconut Tree

The towering strong, dark and textured trunk extends toward the clear blue skies. Its cascading crown of leaves bloom and spread, casting playful shadows across the ground beneath. The ‘tree of life’ as we call it, the coconut tree, is inextricably entwined with the lifestyle of our island people. From the water, milk and oil giving nuts to the fibrous husk and leaves, there is no part of the tree that goes to waste.  

The Milk and Water

In the ancient times, the islanders used the milk and scraped coconut in their everyday preparation of meals, beverages and medicines. Flavourful and creamy, the milk is classically used in curries both meat and vegetable, in soups – most famously with lentils, and in smoothies for a thicker and wholesome consistency. Refrigerating coconut milk upside down overnight, then scooping out the thick cream that has formed over the top acts as a cream – beat it with a dash of sugar and use it to garnish desserts or top off a soup. 

Unique concoctions of coconut milk with other herbal ingredients are applied on the hair and skin for deep nourishment. Used regularly on dry and damaged hair, it restores hair shine and helps soothe and treat itchy scalp and dandruff. Milk baths were a common indulgence for centuries, adopted by many powerful women throughout history and occasionally practised even today for the ultimate relaxation and rejuvenation. 

As a thirst quencher, coconut water is cooling and hydrating, helps detoxify the body and naturally stimulates collagen synthesis. You’ll also find it used in mocktails, smoothies, juices and cocktails. 

The Pulp and Sap

As the coconut matures, the water develops into coconut pulp – also referred to as coconut meat. Enjoyed dried as well as fresh, the meat contains large quantities of medium chain fatty acids, improves endurance and heart health, regulates blood sugar levels and promotes digestion. 

Coconut oil is made from a pressing of the coconut pulp, containing medium-chain fatty acids which gives it a firm texture at cold or room temperatures. Increasingly popular as a cooking oil, many praise it for its health benefits including antioxidant properties, weight loss potential, and improving the moisture content of dry skin. Using coconut oil as a mouthwash, as a quick source of energy and encouraging fat burning are among other evidence based benefits.   

The sap of the cut coconut flower plays yet another vital role and is largely used in preparation of coconut treacle, jaggery and vinegar. These are in turn used in desserts, pickles and preserves. Rich in nutrients, these all-natural products are vegan and gluten free, loaded with antioxidants, and great for nurturing the gut’s microbiome respectively. 

The production and manufacturing process of coconut arrack revolves around the fermentation and distillation of the sap of unopened flowers of the coconut tree. Men, often referred to as toddy tappers, rise at dawn and move amongst the tops of coconut trees with the use of connecting ropes. The process is tedious, involves a great deal of practice, skill and patience. A single tree could yield two litres of liquid per day. Sri Lanka is the largest producer of coconut arrack, which is traditionally consumed by itself or with a soda of choice. It is also commonly mixed in cocktails as a substitute for the required quantities of either rum or whiskey. 

The white liquor created from fermenting the sap of the coconut flower is known as toddy. It is our island’s most popular drink of choice and often amped up with onion or chilli. The liquid is known to ferment quite quickly and therefore must be consumed on the same day that it is tapped. If it is left for more than a few days, it turns into vinegar. If it is distilled, it becomes arrack.

The Husk and Fibre

Our island has a history of using coconut fibre to create a wide range of products for household, industrial and agricultural purposes. The fibre is extracted from the outer husk of the coconut shell and is commonly referred to as coir. It is known to have the highest toughness amongst all natural fibres and is capable of withstanding 4-6 times the strain and weight of other natural fibres. From floor mats, brushes and mattresses for the household, flooring material, insulation and ropes for industrial purposes, coir pots, twine and peat for agricultural purposes, these coconut fibre products are water resistant, eco-friendly and 100% biodegradable. 

The Shell and Leaves

The empty coconut shell also finds purpose in households, farms and industries. Spoons, bowls, cups and mugs are crafted having been cut, smoothened and carved. Coconut wood is a strong alternative to traditional hardwood varieties including teak and ebony. Both the shells and wood have gained much popularity in the production of furniture and decorative ornaments over the recent years across the globe. 

From decorative screens, baskets and mats to windbreaks, shades and fans, the coconut leaf too has its multiple purposes. They are large, feathery fronds that grow at the tip of the coconut tree. Unique in shape and texture, these leaves are woven together and are both a sustainable and renewable resource. This is an age-old traditional craft, passed along through generations. The weaving begins from one side of the leaf, and involves folding in a criss cross manner, thereby interlocking the leaves. 

The leaves are also used in the preparation of meals and Ayurvedic medicines due to its immunity boosting properties, ability to reduce inflammation and aid in digestion. Traditionally, the woven leaves wrapped around certain types of food gave the meals a rather unique and subtle flavour as well.