Monday, March 5, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Coconuts

Coconut Palms at the Hotel

Plants on Hawaii have many different origins, some indigenous, others alien. Endemic plants are those species that evolved in isolation on the Hawaiian islands and are found nowhere else. Indigenous plants are those that colonized the island before the arrival of humans, such as those that arrive on the winds or over the ocean. Plants introduced by the first travelers to Hawaii, the Polynesians, are regarded as native. Most of these plants have important uses for food, fiber, medicine, and spiritual significance. Alien species are the plants introduced after the late 1700s since contact with European explorers. Some plants were brought purposely, many were accidental weed introductions. Many alien species are escaped cultivated plants and fruit trees, and many are causing damage to the native and less hardy Hawaiian plants. Here we discuss the coconut, the most easily recognized wild edible in Hawaii.

Coconuts are thought to have been brought by the Polynesians to the Hawaiian Islands. It is the world's best known palm, and has many uses as food and as fiber, thatching, and as building material. Coconut palms thrive in sandy soil and are salt tolerant. They prefer areas of abundant sunlight, regular rainfall, high humidity, and temperatures above 55ยบ F all year to produce mature fruit. The coconut palm has a distinct grey, slender, unbranched trunk with a slightly bulbous base. They tend to lean a bit due to the constant tropical breezes. The fronds of the palm grow from the top and drop away with age, elongating the trunk. The leaves are alternate and pinnate, growing along a tough central stalk. The leaflets are leathery, bright green on top and dull green on their undersides. Coconut palms produce flowers and fruit all year around, often flowering and fruiting at the same time. The flowers are on long sheaths that emerge from the base of the palm leaves at the trunk. The coconut palm will produce many mature coconuts in a year under optimal conditions, although many will not survive to maturity due to weather, mold, or harvest.

The coconut is not technically a nut, but a layered drupe. When you purchase a coconut at the grocery store, the outermost, fibrous layer is already removed and it is usually mature, with the hard shell and white flesh inside, and often very little liquid. When we are in tropical areas, we seek out young, green coconuts that have fallen from the tree prematurely. Inside an immature coconut, there may not be any white flesh at all, just coconut water or a thin layer of coconut jelly. Immature coconuts are opened by slicing off one end, through the not-completely-hard outer fibrous layer and the thin shell. We love to drink the fresh coconut water of green coconuts. The water contains sugar, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and provides an isotonic electrolyte balanced drink. It is now becoming a popular commercial product, often sold at health food stores. The jelly occurs when the coconut is a bit older than the immature green coconuts as the water (the liquid endosperm) is converted into the white meat of the coconut, but has not fully matured. The jelly is usually a thin layer, slightly sweet, and soft and gelatinous. The mature coconut has the white, dense meat inside a hard sell surrounded by the fibrous husk.

Sprouted coconuts, with and without the fibrous husk
Matt Kirk also showed us how to find and eat sprouted coconut, a little known delicacy. Once the coconut has matured and fallen to the ground, the endosperm has solidified into the white "meat" of the coconut. This meat nourishes the developing plant embryo, providing energy for the plant to sprout. The consistency of the meat then becomes fluffy and spongy, almost like angel food cake, as it fills the cavity of the seed. The coconut produces a green shoot from one of the eyes on the shell, and a few roots to anchor to the ground. Once we peeled off the fibrous husk, Robert and Matt cracked open the hard shell so we could sample the fluff inside. The taste was a bit sour, almost sightly fermented, but also quite good. This was a wonderful,  unique experience that we are happy to have tried.

Coconuts are one of our favorite wild edibles of Hawaii. The palms surrounding your hotel or at shopping centers often have the coconuts removed for safety reasons, and you can often find the harvested coconuts for sale by roadside vendors who will use a machete to chop off the top so you can drink the water inside. Many coconut products like candies and sweets are produced from the white, slightly sweet flesh of the mature coconut, and we shouldn't forget the coconut milk and coconut cream that is made from the processed meat for your pina coladas!



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