Revelations 22:2 refers to the coconut as “the tree of life, which bears twelve manner of fruits, and yieldeth her fruit every month.” Scientists generally believe that coconut came from the Indian Archipelago or Polynesia. (Tsai)
Early Arabs and Europeans in the first half of the ninth century mentioned that travellers to China referred to the use of coir fiber and of toddy. Medieval writers called the coconut the Indian nut, a palm tree the frond of which produced a fruit as large as a man’s head.
The genus name of coconut (Cocos) probably was derived from the Spanish word coco, used to describe a monkey’s face, because of the three “eyes” at the base of the coconut shell. (CTAHR)
When the first Polynesians landed and settled in Hawaiʻi (about 1000 to 1200 AD (Kirch)) they brought with them shoots, roots, cuttings and seeds of various plants for food, cordage, medicine, fabric, containers, all of life’s vital needs.
“Canoe crops” (Canoe Plants) is a term to describe the group of plants brought to Hawaiʻi by these early Polynesians. One of these was ‘niu,’ the coconut; they used it for food, cordage, etc.
Hawai‘i is on the edge of the coconut belt. The coconut bears better nearer the equator, where it is more widely used than here. In Hawai`i there are other plants, native and introduced, that provide as well for people’s needs.
This palm is the most useful plant of the tropics. It is said that more uses are made of it than any other tree in the world. Besides drink, food and shade, niu offers the possibilities of …
… 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. (CanoePlants)
The tree bears fruit around the seventh birthday, for up to 70-100 years, providing food for a human lifetime. There may be up to 50 fruit a year. A he‘e (octopus) was often planted in the bottom of the hole, furnishing fertilizer and giving the plant the idea of roots that spread and grip, and a body that is fat and round.
As food, the niu flesh or meat is used for different purposes, depending upon the maturity of the nut. The jelly-like spoon meat of a green nut is called ‘o‘io. The next stage is haohao, when the shell is still white and the flesh soft and white.
Half ripe, at the ho‘ilikole state, it is eaten raw with Hawai`i red salt and poi. At the o‘o stage, the nut is mature, but the husk not dried.
The flesh of a mature nut at the malo`o stage is used to make coconut cream, which when mixed with kalo (taro) makes a dish called kulolo; with ‘uala (sweet potato) it is called poipalau; and paipaiee with ripe ‘ulu (breadfruit.) (CanoePlants)
The trunks used to make house posts, small canoes, hula drums, or food containers. Leaves (launiu) used to for baskets, thatch and for fans, known as some of the finest in Polynesia. Leaf sheaths used as food or fish-bait wrappers.
Husk fibers also used for cordage to make nets or lashing, known as ‘aha; the cordage could be coarse or fine. The cordage can be made into supports for ‘umeke (bowls) or other round-based objects.
Shell of fruit was used for eating utensils, such as spoons, bowls, plates, as well as ‘awa cups and strainers for ‘awa. Niu shells also served for storage containers, lids, and knee drums or puniu; the fibers are made into a drum beater
A musical instrument, the hokiokio, can also be made from coconut shell. Small mortars and bull roarers (oeoe) are also made from the niu shell. Sometimes the niu “shell” used to make ‘uli‘uli (hula rattles.)
Niu water used as a drink, and flesh eaten raw or with poi. Oil from meat used on body and hair. The mid-rib of the niu leaf is used as the “skewer” for a kukui nut torch (kali lukui). (Bishop Museum)
Later, some commercial uses of niu included copra. “Samples of copra (dried meat of coconut) grown here have been forwarded to San Francisco ….”
“The quality of the product is excellent, comparing favorably with that of the best grade received in that market, and the price per pound is satisfactory. So well pleased are the people on the Coast that they have signified a willingness to take all that can be shipped to them.”
“The copra is compressed and the extracted oil used in the manufacture of soaps, and as oils in the manufacture of high-grade paints. Another use to which it is put is the manufacture of shredded cocoanut, which is utilized by confectioners and bakers. The fiber is made into hawsers (ropes) for towing purposes.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 12, 1907)
“One of the uses to which copra is put and for which there has not yet been found an available substitute is in the production of salt water soap, soap that will lather and be effective in salt water. (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 15, 1907)
“‘Don’t wait to get fresh milk from Honolulu. Use the cow of the Pacific.’ The coconut is known as the cow of the Pacific. Its milk is very nourishing. I said, ‘Get me two nuts and I’ll show you how to make both cream and milk.’” (Fullard-Leo)