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Coconuts in India

Contributed by V.T. Markrose, Coconut Development Board, Kochi 11, Kerala, India

The Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera Linn.) is supposed to be one of the five legendary Devavrikshas and is eulogised as Kalpavriksha - the all giving tree - in Indian classics. All parts of the palm are used in someway or another in the daily life of the people of the west coast; the traditional coconut growing area. Its fruit is called Lakshmi Phai and is used in social and religious functions in India irrespective of whether palm is locally grown or not.

Coconut is grown in more than 86 countries worldwide, with a total production of 54 billion nuts per annum. India occupies the premier position in the world with an annual production of 13 billion nuts, overtaking Indonesia and the Philippines, the other two prominent coconut-growing countries.

The coconut palm is a versatile tree crop; no other tree crop grown can match coconut palm in its versatility. It provides nutritious food and a refreshing drink, oil for edible and non-edible uses, fibre of commercial value, shell for fuel and industrial uses, thatch, an alcoholic beverage, timber and a variety of miscellaneous products for use as domestic fuel. The palm is amenable to both plantation and homestead management and it can be either a major crop or a minor one in a homestead garden of mixed crops. While responding favourably to scientific management, the palm also tolerates negligent farming to a certain extent. Thus, it can adapt to the divergent farming situations and management practices that are prevalent in the different agro-climatic regions.

The coconut palm exerts a profound influence on the rural economy of the many states where it is grown extensively and it provides sustenance to more than 10 million people. The export earnings derived by India from coconut are around Rs.3000 million, mainly through the export trade in coir and coir goods. The processing and related activities centred on the crop generate employment opportunities for over two million people in India. The contribution of coconut oil to the national edible oil pool is 6 %. In addition, the crop contributes Rs.7000 crores annually to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is no wonder coconut culture is spreading even to non-traditional belts that were, until recently, considered unsuitable for the purpose.

In India, coconut is cultivated mainly in the coastal tracts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Pondicherry, and Maharashtra and in the islands of Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar. Of late, coconut cultivation has been introduced to suitable locations in non-traditional states including Assam, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachai Pradesh and in the hinterland regions of the coconut growing states.

Kerala is the main coconut growing state with an area of 10.20 lakh hectares and production of 5911 million nuts, followed by Tamil Nadu (3.20 lakh hectares and 3716 million nuts), Karnataka (2.87 lakh hectares and 1493 million nuts) and Andhra Pradesh (0.95 lakh hectares and 780 million nuts). These four southern states together account for 90 % of the total production in the country.

In productivity too, India ranks number one among other coconut growing countries in the world. The average productivity of coconut in the country is 6898 nuts per ha. Among the four major coconut growing states, Tamil Nadu has the highest productivity (11 620 nuts/ha), Andhra Pradesh has a productivity of 8296 nuts/ha, followed by Kerala (5793 nuts/ha) and Karnataka (5204 nuts/ha).

There are mainly two varieties of coconut: tall and dwarf. In addition, hybrids of various combinations have also evolved. The tall cultivar is extensively grown throughout India, while the dwarf is grown mainly for parent material in hybrid seed production and for tender coconuts. The tall cultivar generally grown along the west coast is called West Coast Tall, and the cultivar grown along the east coast is called East Coast Tall.

Benaulim is the tall variety grown in Goa and coastal Maharashtra. Laccadive Ordinary, Laccadive Micro, Tiptur Tall, Kappadam, Komadan and Andartian Ordinary are some of the tall varieties grown in the country and Chowghat Dwarf Orange, Chowghat Dwarf Green, Malayan Yellow Dwarf and Malayan Orange Dwarf are some of the dwarf cultivars grown in India. Gangabondam is a dwarf type grown in certain tracts of Andhra Pradesh. Many hybrid combinations of tall and dwarf cultivars that have evolved are also grown in the country.

Coconut possesses the unique characteristic of allowing any crop combination in the inter-spaces. A well-spaced coconut garden provides adequate inter-spaces where it is possible to grow a variety of crops, both seasonal and perennial. When annuals or seasonal crops are grown in coconut holdings it is designated as inter-cropping; when perennials are grown it is called mix cropping. A combination of inter-crops and mixed crops raised together are referred to as a multi-storeyed cropping system.

In widely spaced gardens the shade from the coconut palms is not intense enough to prevent the growth of other crops. During the pre-bearing period, especially up to three years after planting, the entire area could be made use of because of the negligible shade effect. As the palms grow there is a progressive increase in the shade coverage produced by the crown for up to 20 years. Depending on the age of the palms and canopy coverage suitable crops, or a combination of crops, could be selected for growing in the gardens. The common inter-crops that could be grown during the pre-bearing or the early stages of the growth of the palms are pineapple, banana, groundnut, chillies, tapioca, sweat potato and other root crops. In addition, cocoa, pepper, cashew, fruit trees could be grown as mix crops.

Coconut crops are susceptible to various diseases and pest attack. The major pests to coconut in India are rhinoceros beetle, red palm weevil, leaf-eating caterpillar and rats and the major diseases are root wilt, thanjavur wilt/ganoderma, tatipaka, bud rot, leaf rot, stem bleeding and crown chocking. Of these, root wilt, prevalent in Kerala, is a century old disease. Effective control measures are yet to be developed for root wilt disease in Kerala; thanjavur wilt/ganodarma disease in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; and tatipaka disease in Andhra Pradesh. However, the diseases can be kept under control by adopting the recommended package of practices.

Of the total production of coconuts, about 5 % is consumed in the tender form for drinking purposes. The rest is utilised as mature nuts for household and religious purposes and for the production of edible copra, milling copra and desiccated coconut. Coconut oil production in the country is nearly 4.5 lakh tonnes. Of this 40 % is consumed for edible purposes, 46 % for toiletry uses and 14 % for industrial uses.

The emphasis given by the Coconut Development Board to evolving technologies for the development of new value added products has yielded results and this product diversification and by-product utilisation has recently gained momentum. Various research programmes, sponsored by the board through the existing research institutions in the country, have led to the development of new technologies for the manufacture of coconut cream, spray dried coconut milk powder, preserved and packed tender coconut water and coconut water based vinegar. Commercial production units have started in various parts of the country with the technologies developed so far.

The research on coconut in India is being carried out by the institutions under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the State Agricultural Universities located in different coconut growing states. Research on post harvest processing of coconut is also undertaken by the institutions under the CSIR. The board has a programme to sponsor research on post harvest processing of coconut through such research institutes. The institutes under the Coir Board mainly undertake the coir research.

Coconut development programmes in India are mainly carried out by The Coconut Development Board, which was established in 1981. The board's schemes are either implemented directly or through the Department of Agriculture/Horticulture of the states and union territories. The state governments also implements their own programmes to suit the local needs. The board functions under the administrative control of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India with the Chairman as the chief executive. The Coconut Development Board Headquarters is in Kochi in the state of Kerala and in order to implement and monitor various developmental projects, the board has established field offices in various parts of the country.

To conclude, coconut is a crop with unique features. Owing to its versatile uses, the demand for coconut and its products has been on the increase. The crop is spreading fast even to the interior tracts and the north and northeastern parts of the country gaining national acceptance. Having already attained the premier position in the world, India's thrust now shall be to exploit the wealth potential of the crop in all respects. Moreover coconut is an ecofriendly crop which permits coexistence of multi-species plants. It enriches soil fertility in association with other crops and is quite amenable to organic farming if appropriate intercrops are grown in the inter-spaces. Due to multifarious uses, the future of the crop is very bright irrespective of the locations where it is grown in the world.