Updated: Nov 25, 2020
"Niu", Coconut Palm-Cocos nucifera
4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? The name "Coconut" comes from a Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning head or skull after the 3 indentations on the coconut shell looking like a face. The Coconut is a member of the Palm tree family and is a perennial evergreen. It thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity so the beach is where you see many of them. It prefers abundant sunlight and regular rainfall, warm temperatures, and high humidity, and has the ability to withstand very strong winds by bending with the breeze. Coconut Palms can grow up to 98 feet and can produce up to 75 fruits per year. It produces both the female and male flowers on the same stem making it monoecious. The fruit is quite buoyant allowing it to float in salt water for up to 4 months and still remain viable. The Niu was one of the select canoe plants brought on exploratory voyages by the Polynesians. The fruit of the Coconut and most palms is not technically a nut but is a stone fruit or drupe similar to the mango, nectarine, cherry, olive, almond. Here in the islands, they fruit all year. The weight of a mature fruit can be more than 3 lbs. and because of that, many resorts trim the trees regularly to avoid the hazards of them falling on their guests-no need to worry though if you are a positive thinker, because rumor has it that coconuts only fall on those with evil thoughts! Another great Kauai fact is that the building code prohibits any building exceeding the height of a Coconut Palm (the equivalent to 4 stories).
2. Where did it come from? The Coconut is also called the "Tree of Life" because if it major importance to the cultures around the world where it grows. As early as 1 BC this plant was mentioned in Indian chronicles. As far as its importance to the Polynesians, with more than 100 uses. According to the website: canoe plants of Ancient Hawaii: Besides drink, food and shade, Niu was used in housing, thatching, hats, baskets, furniture, mats, cordage, clothing, charcoal, brooms, fans, ornaments, musical instruments, shampoo, containers, implements and oil for fuel, light, ointments, soap and more. Traditionally, the Niu was planted around the birth of a Hawaiian child and began producing fruit around the 7th birthday and continued to produce fruit for 70-100 years-a human lifetime of food.
3. When is the best time for collecting? We collect them whenever we see them being trimmed. They need to be trimmed usually every 6 months and with their abundance on the island, its pretty easy to find them being trimmed somewhere!
We collect the fiber which is also called Coconut paper, it is between the branches, and is quite tough and comes is a variety of lengths and widths. We also collect the branches of inflorescence, which we call the fruiting branches. Each branch can have 20-25 individual branches and are quite heavy. We are quite picky, looking for those that are not fully dry, are long and have plenty of small nuts. We dry them in the sun and then store open air until use.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
Many use the leaves to weave baskets, hats, flowers, fish and more. I often also collect some leaves when I am gathering the fiber and fruiting branches to make grasshoppers for the children who might wander past but our main focus is on the fiber which we use to collar our baskets, use a wrap for the hanging budvases, and as wings for the Kauai Christmas ornaments. The branches are used primarily as handles for our wall pouches but occasionally can be used one of the decorative elements on the baskets.
*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.