What do a toddy, a macaroon and a refreshing swig of agua de pipa have in common? … They’re all coconut in one of its many guises. It would be difficult to find any other Rorschach like symbol that so quickly makes you think of the Caribbean. We’ve all dreamed of lounging beneath a palm tree, while you gaze at the surreal blue ocean and sip some exotic drink from a coconut shell. Many think of the coconut as a Native American cultivar, but it found its way, some think floated, to the New World at some unknown but rather recent date. Current anthropological research dates charred coconut found in the Cook Islands to 6000 BCE, long before humans landed. Spanish records state that coconuts were already in San Blas, Panama when they arrived. Coconuts probably reached America as “floaters” or with some ancient sea voyagers blown off course from East Africa or some Pacific Island – your choice!
However, few would ever think of the coconut as an economic giant. Well surprisingly enough the coconut, although it’s sort of a grass, is considered the single most useful “tree” on Earth. Even though the coconut tree doesn’t produce wood, the stems are composed of bundled strong fibers and are used in a variety of ways. A coconut supplies as much protein as a quarter pound of beef and its flesh well known globally in its shredded and sweetened guise. Its oil is the third most consumed type globally, and the water from a few coconuts can keep a shipwrecked pilgrim alive indefinitely. The coconuts many uses include candy, bakery goods, shampoos, soaps, lotions, and synthetic rubber and you can even make a fermented beverage called a “toddy”.
The outer trunk is a building material for homes and furniture. The husk (coir) makes water resistant ropes for rigging used on sailing ships for centuries and when pulverized it becomes a well-known potting soil for plants. Coconut charcoal is a major component of the best air, water, and gas filters. It been opined by agriculturalists that the coconut palm has more uses than any other plant on Earth. Panama has a fledgling grass roots industry that produces virgin coconut oil, which is purported to have inherent positive health benefits. In Panama, you’ll see signs along the road offering pipa or agua de pipa, which is unprocessed coconut water, sipped right from the shell … an interesting experience especially when the coconut is chilled. In addition, the term toddy was first used by early English sailors to describe the fermented sap of coconut and palm trees and eventually worked its way into our language as a “Hot Toddy” meaning a mixed drink that usually includes citrus and honey, or early on, molasses.