Coconut is one of the foremost of trees in human civilisation. The genesis period of human civilisation is referred to as ‘Kalpa’ in eastern philosophical teachings (Buddhism and Hinduism). ‘Vruksha’ in Sanskrit means ‘the tree’. Therefore, in Sri Lankan folklore, it is considered the ‘Kalpa Vruksha’ or the tree that came into being at the beginning of the ‘Kalpa’ period. It is also defined as the ‘tree of life’ due to the countless benefits it offers. However, there is a world of difference between these two definitions. Among Sri Lankans, a predominant place is given to the coconut tree, making it a common sight in traditional households. It is believed that the coconut tree is capable of fulfilling all primary needs of human beings, from food, clothing to shelter. In fact, this is one reason why it is believed to be one of the the oldest trees in human civilisation, that it was a god given for fulfilling basic requirements of early humans. The fruit of the coconut, the milk obtained from it, coconut water and coconut oil, which is extracted from dried coconut meat are today’s commodities. Coconut Milk Rice and Pol Sambola (a traditional Sri Lankan dish consisting of freshly grated coconut, onions, dried whole chilies, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish), is a favourite breakfast dish among locals, which is believed to be a simple, yet nutritious and balanced meal. A simpler breakfast alternative made predominantly of the coconuts fruit, is the 'Rice Porridge' cooked with coconut milk, heirloom rice, juice of green herbs and spices. The rest of the coconut plant and its uses are unknown to most
Sri Lankans Westerners. Starting from its roots, a coconut tree has much more to offer than the ubiquitously used coconut fruit and shells.
The charcoal obtained from coconut root is mixed with coconut oil to be used as an antidote for snake bites. The extract obtained after crushing coconut tree roots is used along with rock salt as a mouth wash to treat gum disease (Gingivitis) and bad breath. A charcoal mix obtained from coconut roots, coconut sprouts and the bark of Mimusops elengi (Munamal Pothu) is used as a toothpowder to strengthen the roots of tooth. Coconut roots are also used as a makeshift toothpick by locals. Due to its therapeutic benefits the roots are also used in traditional medicine in treating joint inflammations. The young shoots of coconut roots are crushed and made into a porridge to be taken internally, in such cases.
The trunk of the coconut tree is used as timber in building and carpentry. The trunks were also used in designing makeshift boats and canoes. Branches of coconut trees are used as a base for roofing traditional Sri Lankan homes, of which the roofs are thatched with coconut palm leaves. The charcoal obtained after burning branches of the coconut tree are mixed with worm castings manure on a 2:1 ratio in manufacturing an organic form of fertiliser, which was then used in local paddy fields. The apex branch of coconut trees are also used as a brace in the treatment of limb fractures. The core of the coconut which remained after logging a coconut tree was cooked to be made in to a curry.
Coconut ekels are used in making ekel brooms, which is used in sweeping gardens. The coir obtained from the outside husk of the coconut fruit is used in manufacturing household brooms. Coconut coir is also used in manufacturing coir mats, upholstery, mattresses, rope and various cleaning utensils. It is also used in agriculture and irrigation, due to its water holding capacity. Coconut palm leaf, ekel as well as the shell of coconuts are used in a wide array of ornamental products, household products such as bowls, mugs, spoons, and various other handicrafts.
The charcoal obtained from the outer membrane of the unopened coconut flower is used along with ghee, aloe vera and wild turmeric to heal burns. Coconut palm sugar, coconut jaggery, coconut treacle, coconut toddy and vinegar are made using the coconut flower sap obtained after tapping the coconut flower. Coconut flower is also used as a symbol of prosperity in Sri Lankan culture. Both the coconut tree and coconut flower are considered to be receptors of healthy cosmic radiations and presumed to transmit such radiation across a 360 degree sphere due to its conducive physical characteristics (branches are spread in a 360 angle around its axis).
Coconut water obtained from pulp-less young coconuts have been used in place of saline since time immemorial. Thus, it is used in cleaning wounds and treating dehydration. This has been a common practice during the World War. Water obtained from young coconuts which has a pulp is a highly nutritious and tasteful herbal tonic.
Coconut sprout or coconut apple is the edible spherical embryo of germinating coconuts. This is considered the most nutritious part of a coconut. However for a coconut apple to appear, the fruit of the coconut has to be kept for germination. A coconut sprout is a rare sight as the coconut fruit would be consumed before it is allowed to germinate and sprout. Coconut sprout is also a remedy for many gastrointestinal diseases due to its cleansing and purgative properties. The oily membrane which covers a coconut sprout is the only oil to exist in nature without human intervention. Virgin coconut oil which has to be manually obtained from the pulp of the coconut is known to possess cleansing and antimicrobial properties as in the case of the coconut tree and flower. In addition to its culinary applications, coconut oil is used in anointing oil lamps during funerals and many other ceremonial functions, on the belief that it purifies the surrounding air by burning away the impurities. In fact, this phenomena can be observed on a lit coconut oil lamp where certain dark matter appears to be attracted to the lower end of the flame, and leaving as a fume from the upper end, a sight which is absent in candles or any other oil lamp.
Only a tropical climate such as Sri Lanka’s is conducive to the growth of coconut trees. Centuries ago, Sri Lankans had the habit of planting two coconut trees in remembrance of the dead, one on the side of the head, other on the opposite side (leaving a healthy gap for both the trees to grow luxuriously). Planting a coconut tree was also considered to be a charitable act, as many generations would feed on the subsequent produce. Therefore coconuts were a common sight not only in households but also in barren lands as well as metropolises. During troubled times, even the less well off hardly ran out of basic necessities. Before marking the day, a question comes coupled with a hapless answer; where have all the coconuts gone? surely not out of the soil. Till tomorrow!