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Where a coconut can save your life
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(Credit: Alexey Korsakov/Alamy)
If you’re ever trapped on a deserted island surrounded by nothing except coconut trees, know that you're not as doomed as you might think.
Sri Lankans call the coconut tree the 'Tree of Life' (Credit: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Getty

Sri Lankans call the coconut tree the 'Tree of Life' (Credit: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Getty

Tree of life

While far from deserted, the island of Sri Lanka has long known about the power of the humble coconut tree. Here, it’s called the ‘Tree of Life’ because Sri Lankans can – and do – use literally every single part of it.

“It’s the main ingredient for our culture and we protect it closely,” said Kanchana Weerakoon, president of Sri Lanka’s Eco Friendly Volunteers.

Sri Lanka produces 2.7 billion coconuts each year (Credit: Palani Mohan/Getty)

Sri Lanka produces 2.7 billion coconuts each year (Credit: Palani Mohan/Getty)

Feeding the family

Sri Lanka produces 2.7 billion coconuts each year and consumes 75% of them domestically, which is why it’s illegal to cut a Sri Lankan coconut tree before it has matured. The Cabinet of Sri Lanka even has a Minister of Coconut Development, whose mission is to ensure the availability of coconuts and coconut products.

The average family of five in Sri Lanka uses one coconut per day (Credit: imageBROKER/Alamy)

The average family of five in Sri Lanka uses one coconut per day (Credit: imageBROKER/Alamy)

The average family of five in Sri Lanka uses one coconut per day. – Dr Renuka Jayatissa, head of nutrition at Colombo’s Medical Research Institute.

The coconut is the main ingredient for Sri Lankan culture (Credit: Ishara S.Kodikara)

The coconut is the main ingredient for Sri Lankan culture (Credit: Ishara S.Kodikara)

Survival tips

So, if you were ever lost on a deserted island, your best bet is to be stranded with a Sri Lankan. But in the off chance you’re not, these survival tips will give you everything you need, from building a shelter or fire to staying hydrated and healthy.

Scaletreeambient

Scaletreeambient

First, to scale the skinny tree, you’re going to need a sturdy coconut husk rope.

Sri Lankans make rope from the coconut coir (Credit: Michele Burgess/Alamy)

Sri Lankans make rope from the coconut coir (Credit: Michele Burgess/Alamy)

Retrieval

“You want to make a rope from the coconut coir fibre between the outer hard covering and the internal shell,” explained Anushka Rajiyah, director for Cocomi Bio Organic.

Once you’ve plucked enough brown coir fibre, twist it into short pieces; long fibres will tangle and make it harder to roll together. Twist and roll strands until you have a rope just long enough to wrap around the soles of your feet. Secure with a strong knot.

Scaling a coconut tree takes some practice (Credit: Juergen Hasenkopf/Alamy)

Scaling a coconut tree takes some practice (Credit: Juergen Hasenkopf/Alamy)

Ascending

Scaling the tree takes some practice: grip the tree between your hands and place your feet against the sides of the trunk. Push yourself up with your feet and then bring your feet up as the rope stays securely against the side of the tree. When you get to the top, select your coconuts, twist until the stem breaks and watch the fruits of your labour fall.

How to open the coconut
(Credit: Will Atherton)

(Credit: Will Atherton)

If you don’t have a knife handy…

Slam the coconut against the side of a rock or tree until the husk starts to break. Peel the husk and look for a seam that runs between the ‘eyes’ of the coconut (two small dots). And strike this seam with a good thwack and the nut should crack right open. If it doesn’t, a twig can be used as a wedge. 

The water inside a coconut has more potassium than a banana (Credit: Ishara S.Kodikara)

The water inside a coconut has more potassium than a banana (Credit: Ishara S.Kodikara)

The goods

Inside is the sweet, hydrating nut water, which has more potassium than a banana.

“Coconut water provides two good remedies for dehydration: potassium and sodium,” said Dr. Renuka Jayatissa, head of nutrition at the Medical Research Institute at Colombo’s Ministry of Health. “Meanwhile, the coconut meat has lots of fibre, which reduces the absorption of cholesterol and improves glucose control.”

Only break open as many fresh coconuts as you need (Credit: Sanka Vidanagama/Getty)

Only break open as many fresh coconuts as you need (Credit: Sanka Vidanagama/Getty)

Tip:  Only break open as many fresh coconuts as you need in one sitting; once open, their shelf life is six hours maximum at tropical room temperature.

How to make coconut milk
(Credit: Will Atherton)

(Credit: Will Atherton)

More goodness

And from coconut milk comes coconut oil, a fantastic healthy fat that can be burned at high heat for cooking.

“Coconut oil is reputed to be a wonder oil. It’s antibacterial so can be used to clean teeth instead of toothpaste; it’s an excellent moisturizer for lips, skin and hair; and it’s a ‘brain food’ Sri Lankans use to treat Alzheimer's disease,” said R S Seneviratne, retired Food and Agriculture Organization member.

(Credit: Will Atherton)

(Credit: Will Atherton)

The leftovers

Don’t throw those coconut shells away! They’re a superb renewal energy source that doesn’t produce a hard smoke when burned. 

(Credit: Will Atherton)

(Credit: Will Atherton)

From life comes life

Spread any leftover husks and shells around the trunks of nearby coconut trees as fertiliser.

“The shells are a great composting material for high soil regeneration, increasing mineral levels and water retention properties,” said Kanchana Weerakoon, president of Sri Lanka’s Eco Friendly Volunteers. 

(Credit: Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy)

(Credit: Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy)

A roof over your head

When night falls, build a shelter with the super solid, durable coconut bark, while the coconut leaves can be soaked, dried and woven into sheets for a type of Sri Lankan roofing called cadjan.

“The bark is a straight wood, so it’s great for roofs,” Weerakoon said. “It’s easy to prepare because it’s not very hard, but the fibres are quite strong.”

(Credit: Sirichai Raksue/Alamy)

(Credit: Sirichai Raksue/Alamy)

One last thought…

Finally, save one coconut leaf to act as a sieve to strain your coconut milk nightcap... and call it a night.