The coconut isn’t actually a nut, but the stone from a type of fruit known as a drupe. Collectively, we eat a lot of drupes. Nectarines, mangoes and olives spring to mind. Yet the coconut is one of only a very few that has seeds more desirable than its fruit. Not that eating those seeds is a particularly easy to do. You usually need either a saw, a power drill or a machete to break into them.
The toughness of coconuts is what’s thought to be behind the tree’s remarkable success in the tropics, especially among the islands in the South Pacific. Highly tolerant of salt water, the coconut tree’s shallow roots are perfectly adapted to beach sand. Combine those adaptations with high productivity and a fruit that floats like a football, and you have one of nature’s most effective seed dispersal machines. Fruit that drops off a tree and gets carried out by a tide can float for months and still take root when it washes up on a distant beach. Caribbean coconuts have been found as far away as Norway, still capable of germinating.
All that toughness makes coconuts rather dangerous too. When you consider that a coconut tree can grow up to 80 feet or more, and that a decent-sized coconut can weigh between four and five pounds, they have some real injury-causing potential. A 4 1/2 pound coconut dropped from 80 feet is traveling in excess of 250 miles per hour by the time it hits the ground. It can strike with a force of over 2,000 pounds per square inch.
Ouch. Fortunately, human heads are pretty tough things themselves. For that reason, death by coconut is rare, far rarer than the 150-per-year statistic that politicians in Florida once threw around to make people feel better about shark attacks. Hey, ten times more people die from coconut impacts than shark bites every year, folks. But then coconuts don’t rip your limbs off when you get too close to them, do they governor?
Concussions — and resulting brain injuries — are quite a bit more common in coconut cultivation locales like the Dominican Republic. No wonder the locals in those places associate coconuts with madness. I think if I lived in the tropics I’d wear a football helmet everywhere I went.