Hawaii has coconuts everywhere: washing up on remote or busy beaches, floating in the ocean or falling on city streets. Here are four things I’ve learned about coconuts since moving to the Islands. There are many more (this is a VERY versatile little plant), but this will get us started.
1. Coconuts grow in clusters. I knew they grew in palm trees from photos (unlike pineapple, which are ground plants). But somehow, I always imagined a palm tree with two coconuts. There is probably a cartoon from my childhood responsible for that image. No, coconuts grow in clusters like enormous green grapes. It’s pretty unnerving when you look way up to see them snuggling beneath the large palm leaves. Fortunately, the green ones hang on and only fall when they turn brown.
2. The little brown, hairy “nut” that is found in supermarkets is not what you see growing in a palm tree. It’s the inside part of a much larger shell-like husk. That’s one reason the coconuts look so huge in the tree and when they fall on the ground. You have to remove the outer part to get to the inside “nut.” The outside husk is smooth, which is how it is easily decorated into souvenirs or even mailed.
3. Palm trees have flowers! They don’t look like other flowers that have petals, but they are fun to watch. First, a sort of banana-shaped pod grows on either side of the tree, then it splits as stems with little buds push out. Those buds grow into larger balls and turn colors. Sometime in that process, many of the flowers are cut off of palm trees by landscapers. The ones that survive to grow larger are often in areas that are unattended. Apparently, there are male and female flowers; I’m going to have to watch a lot more closely to figure that out.
Coconut buds grow into flowers.
4. Coconut milk is not the same as coconut water. Coconut milk is often found in a can in grocery stores. Sometimes you can find it in cartons in the milk aisle or as ice cream. It is used in Thai soups and curries, as well as other recipes. But this is not the liquid that you find when you poke a hole in a coconut. That’s coconut water. Coconut milk is pressed from the white meat of fresh coconuts. Coconut water has become popular recently as a beverage that some consider a health drink or substitute for sports drinks.
As with all foods in the Islands, coconuts in Hawaii taste completely different from the mainland. My memory of coconut was the hair-like shreds with a cardboard texture. Don’t let past experiences stop you from tasting coconut in Hawaii, whether in haupia desserts, umbrella drinks or fresh from a roadside stand. It’s a true taste of the Islands!