There is probably nothing more closely associated with life on a tropical island than palm trees and their coconuts. As is typically seen throughout the islands of Belize, Long Caye is covered with palm trees; in fact, for many decades the island was a coconut ‘plantation’, with over 1000 coconut palms planted in rows and tended for their production of this valuable fruit. Many of these original trees, then 50-60′ tall, were wiped out by the Lethal Yellowing Disease which struck the island in 1998. We treat about 500 of these trees quarterly, and have planted another 450 trees, now 20 feet tall, that are resistant to the disease.
Palm trees produce coconuts year round, there is no ‘season’. The trees flower, then the nuts grow on stem clusters until mature. Each tree will have clusters of coconuts in all the various stages of growth, so there is a continuous rain of coconuts falling from the trees. These then spread through human relocation, or by water; coconuts can drift in the sea for months before washing up on a beach and then sprouting. Since they contain their own supply of water and food, the trees repoduce at a hardy rate and are very prolific and fast growing. They tolerate growth in salty conditions and can grow in bare, sterile sand, and are hurricane proof in design. Coconut palms were introduced to the Caribbean when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s, and have spread through the region where they are now found everywhere in these tropical latitudes.
The most common commercial product from these palms is the coconut oil, and this is what was produced on the island. When we first arrived there were the remnants of the fireplace used to render the oil, along with the ruins of a building where the work was performed. Ripe coconuts, which turn brown and fall from the trees, are collected and first husked on a sharp stick. The resulting rounded ‘nut’ is the hard shelled coconut you see sold in supermarkets. The workers then chip the hard shell off with a machete, and they are so skilled that the entire piece of interior ‘meat’ is left intact and whole. The chips are then saved as fuel for the fire. Once the meat is split open and the water drained, it is shredded and placed in a pot of boiling water. After boiling or ‘rendering’ for a period, the oil is separated from the shredded meat and skimmed off the top, cooled, and bottled for sale.
Shredded coconut meat is also used to produce coconut milk, which is also sold for use in cooking, for mixes, and drinks (think Pina Colada). To produce milk, the shredded coconut meat is simply squeezed through a fabric strainer, and the fluid produced is coconut milk.
Coconuts are also edible in pieces (our favorite is to roast them) or as grated and mixed into a rice dish. However, if you have fresh coconuts available as we do on the island (an unlimited supply!) the best way to enjoy them is to pick them mature but still green, just before they ripen to brown and fall. You don’t need to husk them at this stage, just split them open or chip off an opening. The water is very sweet and the meat is soft and jello-like, also very sweet. They taste nothing like the hard, ripe coconuts. Below are some pictures of Slickrock’s ‘coconut seminar’ in which our local guides explain the coconut life cycle, then show everyone how to open and enjoy the sweet tasting green nuts.
This was a welcome, cool day after many hot ones! Click on any image to see the full picture.