Coconuts and Copra

The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, belongs to the oldest and most diverse of the plant families. It is a monocotyledons of which there are two species, known as tall and dwarf. Two major classes of coconut palm are typically recognized on the basis of stature: tall and dwarf. The most common commercial trees are of the tall variety which first flower six years after planting and has a life span of seventy years. The dwarf variety grows to a height of thirty feet, will flower after three years and has a life span of about thirty years.

Every coconut palm in the world is basically of the same species, which probably makes it most abundant single food tree in existence. The distribution of the coconut palm extends through most of the tropical regions of the world as far south as 27° and as far north as 25°.

The tolerance of the coconut tree to salty environments and poor sandy soil is incredible. Coconuts can float for thousands of miles until they are cast up onto a sandy shore. After lying for a while, the coconut eventually sprouts into life. Roots sprout out of two of the eyes in the nut, plunging down into the sand, seeking water and nutrients. Through the third eye, a green shoot grows upwards towards the sunlight. Once established, the embryo palm grows rapidly, and within five to six years the coconut will have matured into a graceful palm tree.

Almost every part of the tree is used for something.

  • the trunk produces a wood which is prime building material
  • the huge frondy leaves are woven together to produce roof thatches, which last up to three or four years
  • the stripped fronds can be used for lashing logs together, making baskets, mats and many other household items
  • the fibrous husk of the coconut known as "coir" produces fibers for a kind of rope, roof thatching, door mats, pot plant liners, potting mix, landscaping mulching, cushion pilling and geotextiles
  • the liquid or milk is a sweet and refreshing drink, and one green coconut can contain up to 1 liter of milk
  • the meat from the fruit is used for a variety of foods and oils, young nuts producing a thin soft white pulp which is widely eaten and older buts producing a thick meaty lining which when dried becomes copra
  • the empty shells are made into household utensils such as spoons and bowls
  • the empty shells are also used to make an excellent charcoal, which works as a cooking fuel and is also used in the production of gas masks and air filters
  • the sponge ball which forms in a germinating coconut is sweet and is, in taste and texture, rather like spun sugar candy or fairy floss
  • the heart of newly sprouted embryo palm trees is used to create millionaires salad, a very exotic food

A single coconut has as much protein as a quarter pound beef steak.


Copra is dried sections of the meaty inner lining of the coconut fruit. It is the principal commercial product derived from the coconut palm, and is used primarily as a source of coconut oil. The resulting residue, coconut oil cake, is used as livestock feed. Coconut oil was introduced as a source of edible fat in northern Europe in the 1860's because of a shortage of dairy fats. Early in the 20th century it became known in the United States.

Harvesting copra is a long and difficult business. The ripe coconuts are split with a machete and laid out to dry in the sun. The meat is then scraped out and dried once more on platforms or on the ground. When the copra is sufficiently dry it is bagged and transported by boat or truck to a trader who then on-sells it to a producer of oils and other products.

To remove the oil, copra is pulverized between rollers, steamed, and pressed at a pressure of about 500 kg per sq. cm. High-quality copra contains about 60 to 70 percent oil. The remaining residue is utilized to feed livestock. The raw coconut oil is subsequently refined.

Coconut oil makes up about 20 percent of all vegetable oils used in the world. It is a common ingredient in margarines, vegetable shortenings, salad oils, and confections. Coconut oil is also used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents, and shampoos. Another big market for coconut oil is in the production of cosmetics. It can also be added to glues, epoxies and lacquers to provide flexibility. Synthetic rubber and glycerin are other products of copra.

Copra meal, the residue of the crushing process, contains about 48% carbohydrate, 5% lignin, 21% protein and 10% fat, making it a valuable and nutritious livestock feed.

Coconut oil does not raise blood cholesterol or cause heart disease like many other vegetable and animal fats, and also contains anti-microbaial components which protect from infection and rancidity.

Coir, the husk of the coconut is a wholly biodegradable natural fiber which has a high wear factor, is capable of high water retention without rotting, resists insect infestation and is a good insulator of both sound and heat. It is known as a lignocellulosic material, the fibers of which are 0.6mm in length and 16 microns in diameter. A single fiber can be as much as 20 cm long and has a 30% breaking elasticity. It is arguably the most durable natural fiber.

Activated carbon is produced from a number of natural materials, a predominant source being the wood and shells of coconuts. These are used to absorb unwanted colours, flavours, odours and contaminants from gasses and liquids.


Extracted from references by
Child, Reginald (1974) "Coconuts" (Second Edition) Longman Group LTD. Woodruff, Jasper Guy, (1970) "Coconuts: Production, Processing, Products." The Avi Publishing Co. Inc. Landfalls of Paradise, Cruising guide to the Pacific Islands (Fourth edition) E.R. Hinz. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 99 Megan Robertson (South Cheshire College, UK). Dr. Janet Sumner-Fromeyer, South Cheshire College.

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