Story type: Essay
For many centuries the occult problem how to account for the milk in the coco-nut has awakened the profoundest interest alike of ingenuous infancy and of maturer scientific age. Though it cannot be truthfully affirmed of it, as of the cosmogony or creation of the world, in the ‘Vicar of Wakefield,’ that it ‘has puzzled the philosophers of all ages’ (for Sanchoniathon was certainly ignorant of the very existence of that delicious juice, and Manetho doubtless went to his grave without ever having tasted it fresh from the nut under a tropical verandah), yet it may be safely asserted that for the last three hundred years the philosopher who has not at some time or other of his life meditated upon that abstruse question is unworthy of such an exalted name. The cosmogony and the milk in the coco-nut are, however, a great deal closer together in thought than Sanchoniathon or Manetho, or the rogue who quoted them so glibly, is ever at all likely, in his wildest moments, to have imagined.
The coco-nut, in fact, is a subject well deserving of the most sympathetic treatment at the gentle hands of grateful humanity. No other plant is useful to us in so many diverse and remarkable manners. It has been truly said of that friend of man, the domestic pig, that he is all good, from the end of his snout to the tip of his tail; but even the pig, though he furnishes us with so many necessaries or luxuries–from tooth-brushes to sausages, from ham to lard, from pepsine wine to pork pies–does not nearly approach, in the multiplicity and variety of his virtues, the all-sufficing and world-supplying coco-nut. A Chinese proverb says that there are as many useful properties in the coco-nut palm as there are days in the year; and a Polynesian saying tells us that the man who plants a coco-nut plants meat and drink, hearth and home, vessels and clothing, for himself and his children after him. Like the great Mr. Whiteley, the invaluable palm-tree might modestly advertise itself as a universal provider. The solid part of the nut supplies food almost alone to thousands of people daily, and the milk serves them for drink, thus acting as an efficient filter to the water absorbed by the roots in the most polluted or malarious regions. If you tap the flower stalk you get a sweet juice, which can be boiled down into the peculiar sugar called (in the charming dialect of commerce) jaggery; or it can be fermented into a very nasty spirit known as palm-wine, toddy, or arrack; or it can be mixed with bitter herbs and roots to make that delectable compound ‘native beer.’ If you squeeze the dry nut you get coco-nut oil, which is as good as lard for frying when fresh, and is ‘an excellent substitute for butter at breakfast,’ on tropical tables. Under the mysterious name of copra (which most of us have seen with awe described in the market reports as ‘firm’ or ‘weak,’ ‘receding’ or ‘steady’) it forms the main or only export of many Oceanic islands, and is largely imported into this realm of England, where the thicker portion is called stearine, and used for making sundry candles with fanciful names, while the clear oil is employed for burning in ordinary lamps. In the process of purification, it yields glycerine; and it enters largely into the manufacture of most better-class soaps. The fibre that surrounds the nut makes up the other mysterious article of commerce known as coir, which is twisted into stout ropes, or woven into coco-nut matting and ordinary door-mats. Brushes and brooms are also made of it, and it is used, not always in the most honest fashion, in place of real horse-hair in stuffing cushions. The shell, cut in half, supplies good cups, and is artistically carved by the Polynesians, Japanese, Hindoos, and other benighted heathen, who have not yet learnt the true methods of civilised machine-made shoddy manufacture. The leaves serve as excellent thatch; on the flat blades, prepared like papyrus, the most famous Buddhist manuscripts are written; the long mid-ribs or branches (strictly speaking, the leaf-stalks) answer admirably for rafters, posts, or fencing; the fibrous sheath at the base is a remarkable natural imitation of cloth, employed for strainers, wrappers, and native hats; while the trunk, or stem, passes in carpentry under the name of porcupine wood, and produces beautiful effects as a wonderfully coloured cabinet-makers’ material. These are only a few selected instances out of the innumerable uses of the coco-nut palm.
Apart even from the manifold merits of the tree that bears it, the milk itself has many and great claims to our respect and esteem, as everybody who has ever drunk it in its native surroundings will enthusiastically admit. In England, to be sure, the white milk in the dry nuts is a very poor stuff, sickly, and strong-flavoured, and rather indigestible. But in the tropics, coco-nut milk, or, as we oftener call it there, coco-nut water, is a very different and vastly superior sort of beverage. At eleven o’clock every morning, when you are hot and tired with the day’s work, your black servant, clad from head to foot in his cool clean white linen suit, brings you in a tall soda glass full of a clear, light, crystal liquid, temptingly displayed against the yellow background of a chased Benares brass-work tray. The lump of ice bobs enticingly up and down in the centre of the tumbler, or clinks musically against the edge of the glass as he carries it along. You take the cool cup thankfully and swallow it down at one long draught; fresh as a May morning, pure as an English hillside spring, delicate as–well, as coco-nut water. None but itself can be its parallel. It is certainly the most delicious, dainty, transparent, crystal drink ever invented. How did it get there, and what is it for?
In the early green stage at which coco-nuts are generally picked for household use in the tropics the shell hasn’t yet solidified into a hard stony coat, but still remains quite soft enough to be readily cut through with a sharp table knife–just like young walnuts picked for pickling. If you cut one across while it’s in this unsophisticated state, it is easy enough to see the arrangement of the interior, and the part borne by the milk in the development and growth of the mature nut. The ordinary tropical way of opening coco-nuts for table, indeed, is by cutting off the top of the shell and rind in successive slices, at the end where the three pores are situated, until you reach the level of the water, which fills up the whole interior. The nutty part around the inside of the shell is then extremely soft and jelly-like, so that it can be readily eaten with a spoon; but as a matter of fact very few people ever do eat the flesh at all. After their first few months in the tropics, they lose the taste for this comparatively indigestible part, and confine themselves entirely (like patients at a German spa) to drinking the water. A young coco-nut is thus seen to consist, first of a green outer skin, then of a fibrous coat, which afterwards becomes the hair, and next of a harder shell which finally gets quite woody; while inside all comes the actual seed or unripe nut itself. The office of the coco-nut water is the deposition of the nutty part around the side of the shell; it is, so to speak, the mother liquid, from which the harder eatable portion is afterwards derived. This state is not uncommon in embryo seeds. In a very young pea, for example, the inside is quite watery, and only the outer skin is at all solid, as we have all observed when green peas first come into season. But the special peculiarity of the coco-nut consists in the fact that this liquid condition of the interior continues even after the nut is ripe, and that is the really curious point about the milk in the coco-nut which does actually need accounting for.
In order to understand it one ought to examine a coco-nut in the act of budding, and to do this it is by no means necessary to visit the West Indies or the Pacific Islands; all you need to do is to ask a Covent Garden fruit salesman to get you a few ‘growers.’ On the voyage to England, a certain number of precocious coco-nuts, stimulated by the congenial warmth and damp of most shipholds, usually begin to sprout before their time; and these waste nuts are sold by the dealers at a low rate to East-end children and inquiring botanists. An examination of a ‘grower’ very soon convinces one what is the use of the milk in the coco-nut.
It must be duly borne in mind, to begin with, that the prime end and object of the nut is not to be eaten raw by the ingenious monkey, or to be converted by lordly man into coco-nut biscuits, or coco-nut pudding, but simply and solely to reproduce the coco-nut palm in sufficient numbers to future generations. For this purpose the nut has slowly acquired by natural selection a number of protective defences against its numerous enemies, which serve to guard it admirably in the native state from almost all possible animal depredators. First of all, the actual nut or seed itself consists of a tiny embryo plant, placed just inside the softest of the three pores or pits at the end of the shell, and surrounded by a vast quantity of nutritious pulp, destined to feed and support it during its earliest unprotected days, if not otherwise diverted by man or monkey. But as whatever feeds a young plant will also feed an animal, and as many animals betray a felonious desire to appropriate to their own wicked ends the food-stuffs laid up by the palm for the use of its own seedling, the coco-nut has been compelled to inclose this particularly large and rich kernel in a very solid and defensive shell. And, once more, since the palm grows at a very great height from the ground–I have seen them up to ninety feet in favourable circumstances–this shell stands a very good chance of getting broken in tumbling to the earth, so that it has been necessary to surround it with a mass of soft and yielding fibrous material, which breaks its fall, and acts as a buffer to it when it comes in contact with the soil beneath. So many protections has the coco-nut gradually devised for itself by the continuous survival of the best adapted amid numberless and endless spontaneous variations of all its kind in past time.
Now, when the coco-nut has actually reached the ground at last, and proceeds to sprout in the spot where chance (perhaps in the bodily shape of a disappointed monkey) has chosen to cast it, these numerous safeguards and solid envelopes naturally begin to prove decided nuisances to the embryo within. It starts under the great disadvantage of being hermetically sealed within a solid wooden shell, so that no water can possibly get at it to aid it as most other seeds are aided in the process of germination. Fancy yourself a seed-pea, anxious to sprout, but coated all round with a hard covering of impermeable sealing-wax, and you will be in a position faintly to appreciate the unfortunate predicament of a grower coco-nut. Natural selection, however–that deus ex machina of modern science, which can perform such endless wonders, if only you give it time enough to work in and variations enough to work upon–natural selection has come to the rescue of the unhappy plant by leaving it a little hole at the top of the shell, out of which it can push its feathery green head without difficulty. Everybody knows that if you look at the sharp end of a coco-nut you will see three little brown pits or depressions on its surface. Most people also know that two of these are firmly stopped up (for a reason to which I shall presently recur), but that the third one is only closed by a slight film or very thin shell, which can be easily bored through with a pocket knife, so as to let the milk run off before cracking the shell. So much we have all learnt during our ardent pursuit of natural knowledge on half-holidays in early life. But we probably then failed to observe that just opposite this soft hole lies a small roundish knob, imbedded in the pulp or eatable portion, which knob is in fact the embryo palm or seedling, for whose ultimate benefit the whole arrangement (in brown and green) has been invented. That is very much the way with man: he notices what concerns his own appetite, and omits all the really important parts of the whole subject. We think the use of the hole is to let out the milk; but the nut knows that its real object is to let out the seedling. The knob grows out at last into the young plantlet, and it is by means of the soft hole that it makes its escape through the shell to the air and the sunshine which it seeks without. This brings us really down at last to the true raison d’etre for the milk in the coco-nut. As the seed or kernel cannot easily get at much water from outside, it has a good supply of water laid up for it ready beforehand within its own encircling shell. The mother liquid from which the pulp or nutty part has been deposited remains in the centre, as the milk, till the tiny embryo begins to sprout. As soon as it does so, the little knob which was at first so very small enlarges rapidly and absorbs the water, till it grows out into a big spongy cellular mass, which at last almost fills up the entire shell. At the same time, its other end pushes its way out through the soft hole, and then gives birth to a growing bud at the top–the future stem and leaves–and to a number of long threads beneath–the future roots. Meanwhile, the spongy mass inside begins gradually to absorb all the nutty part, using up its oils and starches for the purpose of feeding the young plant above, until it is of an age to expand its leaves to the open tropical sunlight and shift for itself in the struggle for life. It seems at first sight very hard to understand how any tissue so solid as the pulp of coco-nut can be thus softened and absorbed without any visible cause; but in the subtle chemistry of living vegetation such a transformation is comparatively simple and easy to perform. Nature sometimes works much greater miracles than this in the same way: for example, what is called vegetable ivory, a substance so solid that it can be carved or turned only with great difficulty, is really the kernel of another palm-nut, allied to the coco-palm, and its very stony particles are all similarly absorbed during germination by the dissolving power of the young seedling.
Why, however, has the coco-nut three pores at the top instead of one, and why are two out of the three so carefully and firmly sealed up? The explanation of this strange peculiarity is only to be found in the ancestral history of the coco-nut kind. Most nuts, indeed, start in their earlier stage as if they meant to produce two or more seeds each; but as they ripen, all the seeds except one become abortive. The almond, for example, has in the flower two seeds or kernels to each nut; but in the ripe state there is generally only one, though occasionally we find an almond with two–a philipoena, as we commonly call it–just to keep in memory the original arrangement of its earlier ancestors. The reason for this is that plants whose fruits have no special protection for their seeds are obliged to produce a great many of them at once, in order that one seed in a thousand may finally survive the onslaughts of their Argus-eyed enemies; but when they learn to protect themselves by hard coverings from birds and beasts, they can dispense with some of these supernumerary seeds, and put more nutriment into each one of those that they still retain. Compare, for example, the innumerable small round seedlets of the poppyhead with the solitary large and richly stored seed of the walnut, or the tiny black specks of mustard and cress with the single compact and well-filled seed of the filbert and the acorn. To the very end, however, most nuts begin in the flower as if they meant to produce a whole capsuleful of small unstored and unprotected seeds, like their original ancestors; it is only at the last moment that they recollect themselves, suppress all their ovules except one, and store that one with all the best and oiliest food-stuffs at their disposal. The nuts, in fact, have learned by long experience that it is better to be the only son and heir of a wealthy house, set up in life with a good capital to begin upon, than to be one of a poor family of thirteen needy and unprovided children.
Now, the coco-nuts are descended from a great tribe–the palms and lilies–which have as their main distinguishing peculiarity the arrangement of parts in their flowers and fruits by threes each. For example, in the most typical flowers of this great group, there are three green outer calyx-pieces, three bright-coloured petals, three long outer stamens, three short inner stamens, three valves to the capsule, and three seeds or three rows of seeds in each fruit. Many palms still keep pretty well to this primitive arrangement, but a few of them which have specially protected or highly developed fruits or nuts have lost in their later stages the threefold disposition in the fruit, and possess only one seed, often a very large one. There is no better and more typical nut in the whole world than a coco-nut–that is to say, from our present point of view at least, though the fear of that awful person, the botanical Smelfungus, compels me to add that this is not quite technically true. Smelfungus, indeed, would insist upon it that the coco-nut is not a nut at all, and would thrill us with the delightful information, innocently conveyed in that delicious dialect of which he is so great a master, that it is really ‘a drupaceous fruit with a fibrous mesocarp.’ Still, in spite of Smelfungus with his nice hair-splitting distinctions, it remains true that humanity at large will still call a nut a nut, and that the coco-nut is the highest known development of the peculiar nutty tactics. It has the largest and most richly stored seed of any known plant; and this seed is surrounded by one of the hardest and most unmanageable of any known shells. Hence the coco-nut has readily been able to dispense with the three kernels which each nut used in its earlier and less developed days to produce. But though the palm has thus taken to reducing the number of its seeds in each fruit to the lowest possible point consistent with its continued existence at all, it still goes on retaining many signs of its ancient threefold arrangement. The ancestral and most deeply ingrained habits persist in the earlier stages; it is only in the mature form that the later acquired habits begin fully to predominate. Even so our own boys pass through an essentially savage childhood of ogres and fairies, bows and arrows, sugar-plums and barbaric nursery tales, as well as a romantic boyhood of mediaeval chivalry and adventure, before they steady down into that crowning glory of our race, the solid, sober, matter-of-fact, commercial British Philistine. Hence the coco-nut in its unstripped state is roughly triangular in form, its angles answering to the separate three fruits of simpler palms; and it has three pits or weak places in the shell, through which the embryos of the three original kernels used to force their way out. But as only one of them is now needed, that one alone is left soft; the other two, which would be merely a source of weakness to the plant if unprotected, are covered in the existing nut by harder shell. Doubtless they serve in part to deceive the too inquisitive monkey or other enemy, who probably concludes that if one of the pits is hard and impermeable, the other two are so likewise.
Though I have now, I hope, satisfactorily accounted for the milk in the coco-nut, and incidentally for some other matters in its economy as well, I am loth to leave the young seedling whom I have brought so far on his way to the tender mercies of the winds and storms and tropical animals, some of whom are extremely fond of his juicy and delicate shoots. Indeed, the growing point or bud of most palms is a very pleasant succulent vegetable, and one kind–the West Indian mountain cabbage–deserves a better and more justly descriptive name, for it is really much more like seakale or asparagus. I shall try to follow our young seedling on in life, therefore, so as to give, while I am about it, a fairly comprehensive and complete biography of a single flourishing coco-nut palm.
Beginning, then, with the fall of the nut from the parent-tree, the troubles of the future palm confront it at once in the shape of the nut-eating crab. This evil-disposed crustacean is common around the sea-coast of the eastern tropical islands, which is also the region mainly affected by the coco-nut palm; for coco-nuts are essentially shore-loving trees, and thrive best in the immediate neighbourhood of the sea. Among the fallen nuts, the clumsy-looking thief of a crab (his appropriate Latin name is Birgus latro) makes great and dreaded havoc. To assist him in his unlawful object he has developed a pair of front legs, with specially strong and heavy claws, supplemented by a last or tail-end pair armed only with very narrow and slender pincers. He subsists entirely upon a coco-nut diet. Setting to work upon a big fallen nut–with the husk on, coco-nuts measure in the raw state about twelve inches the long way–he tears off all the coarse fibre bit by bit, and gets down at last to the hard shell. Then he hammers away with his heavy claw on the softest eye-hole till he has pounded an opening right through it. This done he twists round his body so as to turn his back upon the coco-nut he is operating upon (crabs are never famous either for good manners or gracefulness) and proceeds awkwardly but effectually to extract all the white kernel or pulp through the breach with his narrow pair of hind pincers. Like man, too, the robber-crab knows the value of the outer husk as well as of the eatable nut itself, for he collects the fibre in surprising quantities to line his burrow, and lies upon it, the clumsy sybarite, for a luxurious couch. Alas, however, for the helplessness of crabs, and the rapacity and cunning of all-appropriating man! The spoil-sport Malay digs up the nest for the sake of the fibre it contains, which spares him the trouble of picking junk on his own account, and then he eats the industrious crab who has laid it all up, while he melts down the great lump of fat under the robber’s capacious tail, and sometimes gets from it as much as a good quart of what may be practically considered as limpid coco-nut oil. Sic vos non vobis is certainly the melancholy refrain of all natural history. The coco-nut palm intends the oil for the nourishment of its own seedling; the crab feloniously appropriates it and stores it up under his capacious tail for future personal use; the Malay steals it again from the thief for his own purposes; and ten to one the Dutch or English merchant beguiles it from him with sized calico or poisoned rum, and transmits it to Europe, where it serves to lighten our nights and assist at our matutinal tub, to point a moral and adorn the present tale.
If, however, our coco-nut is lucky enough to escape the robber-crabs, the pigs, and the monkeys, as well as to avoid falling into the hands of man, and being converted into the copra of commerce, or sold from a costermonger’s barrow in the chilly streets of ungenial London at a penny a slice, it may very probably succeed in germinating after the fashion I have already described, and pushing up its head through the surrounding foliage to the sunlight above. As a rule, the coco-nut has been dropped by its mother tree on the sandy soil of a sea-beach; and this is the spot it best loves, and where it grows to the stateliest height. Sometimes, however, it falls into the sea itself, and then the loose husk buoys it up, so that it floats away bravely till it is cast by the waves upon some distant coral reef or desert island. It is this power of floating and surviving a long voyage that has dispersed the coco-nut so widely among oceanic islands, where so few plants are generally to be found. Indeed, on many atolls or isolated reefs (for example, on Keeling Island) it is the only tree or shrub that grows in any quantity, and on it the pigs, the poultry, the ducks, and the land crabs of the place entirely subsist. In any case, wherever it happens to strike, the young coco-nut sends up at first a fine rosette of big spreading leaves, not raised as afterwards on a tall stem, but springing direct from the ground in a wide circle, something like a very big and graceful fern. In this early stage nothing can be more beautiful or more essentially tropical in appearance than a plantation of young coco-nuts. Their long feathery leaves spreading out in great clumps from the buried stock, and waving with lithe motion before the strong sea-breeze of the Indies, are the very embodiment of those deceptive ideal tropics which, alas, are to be found in actual reality nowhere on earth save in the artificial palm-houses at Kew, and the Casino Gardens at too entrancing Monte Carlo.
For the first two or three years the young palms must be well watered, and the soil around them opened; after which the tall graceful stem begins to rise rapidly into the open air. In this condition it may be literally said to make the tropics–those fallacious tropics, I mean, of painters and poets, of Enoch Arden and of Locksley Hall. You may observe that whenever an artist wants to make a tropical picture, he puts a group of coco-nut palms in the foreground, as much as to say, ‘You see there’s no deception; these are the genuine unadulterated tropics.’ But as to painting the tropics without the palms, he might just as well think of painting the desert without the camels. At eight or ten years old the tree flowers, bearing blossoms of the ordinary palm type, degraded likenesses of the lilies and yuccas, greenish and inconspicuous, but visited by insects for the sake of their pollen. The flower, however, is fertilised by the wind, which carries the pollen grains from one bunch of blossoms to another. Then the nuts gradually swell out to an enormous size, and ripen very slowly, even under the brilliant tropical sun. (I will admit that the tropics are hot, though in other respects I hold them to be arrant impostors, like that precocious American youth who announced on his tenth birthday that in his opinion life wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.) But the worst thing about the coco-nut palm, the missionaries always say, is the fatal fact that, when once fairly started, it goes on bearing fruit uninterruptedly for forty years. This is very immoral and wrong of the ill-conditioned tree, because it encourages the idyllic Polynesian to lie under the palms, all day long, cooling his limbs in the sea occasionally, sporting with Amaryllis in the shade, or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair, and waiting for the nuts to drop down in due time, when he ought (according to European notions) to be killing himself with hard work under a blazing sky, raising cotton, sugar, indigo, and coffee, for the immediate benefit of the white merchant, and the ultimate advantage of the British public. It doesn’t enforce habits of steady industry and perseverance, the good missionaries say; it doesn’t induce the native to feel that burning desire for Manchester piece-goods and the other blessings of civilisation which ought properly to accompany the propagation of the missionary in foreign parts. You stick your nut in the sand; you sit by a few years and watch it growing; you pick up the ripe fruits as they fall from the tree; and you sell them at last for illimitable red cloth to the Manchester piece-goods merchant. Nothing could be more simple or more satisfactory. And yet it is difficult to see the precise moral distinction between the owner of a coco-nut grove in the South Sea Islands and the owner of a coal-mine or a big estate in commercial England. Each lounges decorously through life after his own fashion; only the one lounges in a Russia leather chair at a club in Pall Mall, while the other lounges in a nice soft dust-heap beside a rolling surf in Tahiti or the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Curiously enough, at a little distance from the sandy levels or alluvial flats of the sea-shore, the sea-loving coco-nut will not bring its nuts to perfection. It will grow, indeed, but it will not thrive or fruit in due season. On the coast-line of Southern India, immense groves of coco-nuts fringe the shore for miles and miles together; and in some parts, as in Travancore, they form the chief agricultural staple of the whole country. ‘The State has hence facetiously been called Coconutcore,’ says its historian; which charmingly illustrates the true Anglo-Indian notion of what constitutes facetiousness, and ought to strike the last nail into the coffin of a competitive examination system. A good tree in full bearing should produce 120 coco-nuts in a season; so that a very small grove is quite sufficient to maintain a respectable family in decency and comfort. Ah, what a mistake the English climate made when it left off its primitive warmth of the tertiary period, and got chilled by the ice and snow of the Glacial Epoch down to its present misty and dreary wheat-growing condition! If it were not for that, those odious habits of steady industry and perseverance might never have been developed in ourselves at all, and we might be lazily picking copra off our own coco-palms, to this day, to export in return for the piece-goods of some Arctic Manchester situated somewhere about the north of Spitzbergen or the New Siberian Islands.
Even as things stand at the present day, however, it is wonderful how much use we modern Englishmen now make in our own houses of this far Eastern nut, whose very name still bears upon its face the impress of its originally savage origin. From morning to night we never leave off being indebted to it. We wash with it as old brown Windsor or glycerine soap the moment we leave our beds. We walk across our passages on the mats made from its fibre. We sweep our rooms with its brushes, and wipe our feet on it as we enter our doors. As rope, it ties up our trunks and packages; in the hands of the housemaid it scrubs our floors; or else, woven into coarse cloth, it acts as a covering for bales and furniture sent by rail or steamboat. The confectioner undermines our digestion in early life with coco-nut candy; the cook tempts us later on with coco-nut cake; and Messrs. Huntley and Palmer cordially invite us to complete the ruin with coco-nut biscuits. We anoint our chapped hands with one of its preparations after washing; and grease the wheels of our carriages with another to make them run smoothly. Finally, we use the oil to burn in our reading lamps, and light ourselves at last to bed with stearine candles. Altogether, an amateur census of a single small English cottage results in the startling discovery that it contains twenty-seven distinct articles which owe their origin in one way or another to the coco-nut palm. And yet we affect in our black ingratitude to despise the question of the milk in the coco-nut.