The coconut (Coco nucifera linn.) is known as the ‘tree of life’ and also as a “tree which gives all that is necessary for a living.” In the Philippines, coconut is grown largely for copra (coconut ‘meat’) which is processed into vegetable oil and many other products.

By Pablito P. Pamplona, Ph.D.

In neighboring countries like Malaysia and Thailand, special coconut varieties are grown on thousands of hectares for the production of coconut water, also known as ‘refreshing sweet water’ or ‘sweet and aromatic water’ and for its tender meat or nuts. The large-scale commercialization of these special coconut varieties was initially promoted in both countries to cater to the expanding tourism industry and to provide high
income to small landholders with one to three hectares (ha). The income derived from these activities was much higher than that from growing coconut for copra production.

More than a decade ago, the Malaysian government distributed 295,000 coconut seedlings of the sweet and aromatic coconut variety annually. This was higher than its annual distribution of 215,000 hybrid
coconut seedlings for the production of copra, coconut milk, desiccated coconut, and other products. On the other hand, for more than a decade now, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhon
of Thailand has graciously provided, for free, thousands of seedlings of the sweet aromatic varieties on an annual basis to poor small landholders so that they may attain higher incomes.

Both countries later discovered that there was a high demand for the fruits of these coconut varieties, not only among tourists but also among locals who had became conscious of the many health benefits of coconut water and the huge, expanding export market for its products.

As discussed in many health articles and studies in reputable journals, coconut water is one of the best drinks for hydrating the human body. It helps treat kidney and urethral stones, cleans the digestive tract, removes toxins from the body, lowers blood sugar levels, and aids the digestion, in addition to having antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties that help prevent or alleviate the symptoms of many diseases.

The continued growth of the tourism industry in the Philippines and the increasing levels of health consciousness among Filipinos coupled with the increase in their buying power creates opportunities for those involved in the production of these coconut varieties in the country. These varieties, owing to the sweetness and aroma of their water and tender meat or nuts, are competitive on the market than the young coconut from traditional coconut trees grown for the same purposes. It is for this reason that this author is sharing this information, which includes his observations in Malaysia and Thailand, and the results of his local adaptability experiments on his farm, the Triple P Farms and Nursery (TPFN).

Characteristics of the Different Varieties

There are two coconut varieties discovered and grown in Thailand for the purpose of producing sweet water and tender nuts. Both of these varieties belong to the dwarf coconut type and are called in Thailand the ‘Nam Wan’ and ‘Nam Hom’.

Nam Wan is a prolific Thai dwarf variety that bears small green nuts with sweet water. It is mainly grown for its young tender fruits, whose water makes for a refreshing drink with sweetness in the range of 6.5 to 7.1 Brix. This variety occasionally produces two to three seedlings per nut (Fig. 1), becomes productive in as early as 3.5 years (Fig. 2), and produces 150 or more nuts per tree per year (Fig. 3).

‘Nam Hom’ was discovered by chance in the Chaisi province of Thailand. It is a mutant of a standard Thailand dwarf variety called ‘Musi Khiao’. The young fruit of this variety has a unique refreshing sweet flavor and aroma. Nam Hom is less prolific than Nam Wan but produces bigger fruits (Fig. 4). Its distinct aroma can be detected from the root tip of the seedlings, the shell of the young nut, the water, and the tender nuts.

The coconut water of Nam Hom is not as sweet as that of Nam Wan, and its aroma is volatile and does not last long in ordinary storage. Nam Hom is similar to the ‘Pandan’ variety popularized in Malaysia. It is possible that the Pandan variety originated from Thailand, as both have identical features. Both the Nam Wan and Nam Hom are also commercially used in Thailand for toddy or ‘tuba’ production, and this is processed into various toddy products and coconut sugar.

To maintain both the sweetness of the water and aroma of Nam Hom, the trees have to be grown in isolation—at a distance of least 50 meters (m)—from fruit-bearing trees of other coconut varieties. The author observed that the flowers are pollinated by insects, particularly bees. Fruits developed from cross-pollination may not exhibit the sweet and aromatic features the variety is known for. In fact, the author noted that many so-called ‘Pandan’ plants grown by some plant collectors do not exhibit the genuine aroma and sweetness of the original Pandan or Nam Hom. This is because the trees are grown side by side with other coconut

It is not advisable to use cross-pollinated mature fruits for planting, as the trees are expected to produce fruits that do not exhibit the sweet and aromatic features of Nam Hom. Moreover, some have observed in Thailand that Nam Hom grown in unfavorable conditions (like in marginal soils and those which are not adequately fertilized) do not produce fruits with the typical aroma and sweetness of the variety.

Production Techniques

Documentation of production practices indicates that both varieties are productive in plains to sloping areas. In Thailand, thousands of ha of plants of these varieties are grown on raised beds in swampy areas near Bangkok at a distance of 7 x 7 m for a population density of 200 plants/ha (Fig. 5). Planting holes for six to eight month-old seedlings are dug at 50 x 50 centimeters (cm), and a liberal amount of manure vermicast or organic fertilizer is incorporated during planting. Likewise, 250 grams (g) of 14-14-14 or a similar grade of fertilizer is basally applied at the time of planting.

Fertilization of immature trees is at two kilograms (kg) of inorganic fertilizer during the second year and three kg during the third year, applied four times a year. For sustained high productivity, fruiting trees are fertilized at the rate of four to six kg/tree per year divided into four quarterly applications. The application of 20 to 40 kg of livestock manure or organic fertilizer is recommended every six months.

As noted at TPFN in Cotabato, Nam Hom plants are more susceptible to some coconut pests and diseases as compared to traditional coconut varieties. The pests and diseases, however, are readily overcome by adequate nutrition, which builds up plant resistance, and the occasional spraying of fungicides when the diseases reachcritical level.

Trees in well-managed farms produce, on the average, 15 to 18 bunches of fruits per year. Each bunch bears 8 to 13 fruits, though sometimes the figure is smaller, perhaps due to seasonal or production stress. A production rate of 150 fruits per tree per year for Nam Wan and 100 fruits per tree per year for Nam Hom is common.

In a study carried out at TPFN, doubling the fertilization rate recommended above was shown to increase the production of Nam Wan to over 200 fruits per tree per year, and that of Nam Hom to over 130 fruits of marketable size per tree per year. The increased pollination of Nam Hom through bee culture or assisted pollination increased the number of fruits Nam Hom trees bear to almost 150 nuts, but some of the fruits produced thus were smaller and not marketable.

Optimum production is attained when these coconut varieties are planted in the open as a monocrop. However, intercropping with mangosteen, longkong, and other medium-sized fruit trees is possible when the coconut trees are planted at a lower population density of 128 to 140 plants/ha in double rows, with the regular pruning of the mangosteen and longkong to keep the trees at small sizes and to promote fruitfulness. Surveys show that young coconut, longkong, and mangosteen fruits are among the favorites of Western tourists in Thailand.

Harvesting and Post-Harvest Handling

1. Harvesting. Young and tender coconuts are harvested when they have reached the stage when they can give optimum quality in terms of water sweetness and aroma (Fig. 6). Young coconuts are picked at eight months of age, when the peeled fruit of Nam Wan has a diameter of 10 cm, a flesh weight of 100 g, and a shell weight of 120 g. The total weight of the whole peeled fruit (shell + water) is nearly 500 g, with 250 g of water inside the nut. The fruits of the Nam Hom variety are approximately 30% bigger than the fruits of the Nam Wan variety in well-maintained plantations.

At harvest, the whole bunch is cut off; a rope is tied to the bunch, which is then lowered to the ground to prevent damage to the nuts as well as to keep all fruits in the bunch for easy transport to the processing house. In farms where coconut trees are grown in raised beds with a sufficient level of water in the ditches, the bunch of fruits is dropped into the water—a convenient procedure which has the added advantage of cleaning the nuts. Normally, young coconuts are harvested every 20 days, or 18 times per year. This provides the farmer with a regular income every 20 days.

2. Trimming the nuts. As practiced in Thailand, after harvest, the fruit bunch is transported to the processing house for trimming of individual nuts. A sharp knife is used to trim off the sides (creating a cylindrical form with a slight downward taper), the top (creating a cone shape), and the bottom (which is
flattened). Each trimmed nut is immersed in a solution of sodium metabisulfite-SMS (at a concentration of 3%, mixed with the fungicide thiobendazole) for 5 minutes then dried. This is to prevent the nut from turning brown upon exposure to air.

A new technique in trimming young coconuts for long-distance transport to places like the USA or Canada is the removal of all the husks using mechanical means, with only the shell left behind. The de-husked fruit is immersed in SMS solution to prevent browning.

3. Packing for export. For long-distance markets or exports, the individually processed nut is wrapped in a thin plastic sheet in order to prolong its shelf life. It is then placed in a corrugated cardboard box. Different sizes of boxes are available. The number of young coconut fruits per box varies, from nine (3 rows of 3 fruits each for peeled fruits, with the box dimensions being 40 x 30 x 15 cm) to as many as 24, 32, or even 48 fruits for completely de-husked fruits (Fig. 8).

4. Transport for export. In Thailand, boxes of young coconuts for export markets are loaded into containers for land (mainly to Singapore) or sea transportation (other destinations). The temperature of a container for a coconut shipment is set at 7-10oC. At such temperatures, the storage life of young coconuts is extended by three to four weeks. This is enough for many Asian markets such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, or Japan. For longer trips, the temperature is set at three to six oC, which allows the coconuts to stay viable for about 30 days—more than enough time to reach European or North American markets. It is important that the nuts be kept in cool storage while they are sold in the markets; otherwise, their shelf lives are shortened, especially in the dry conditions of temperate zone countries.

Marketing Among Small Landholders

In Thailand, middlemen normally travel to coconut groves and buy the nuts of these special coconut varieties, which are then transported by pickup trucks to the processing house of the exporter or sold at wholesale prices on the local market. More nuts are collected during the peak season of June to January; production during the rest of the year is lower and the prices of the fruits are higher.

Young coconuts are sold in the local wholesale market in either peeled or whole forms. They are also sold in restaurants, resorts, and sidewalk markets in both forms. Peeling is done either before bringing the fruits to the local market or at the local market. When large-scale peeling is done before the distribution to the local market, the operation includes the immersion of the fruits in SMS solution.

Exporting the Nuts

Young nuts of both the Nam Wan and Nam Hom varieties are exported by Thailand; 80% of these go to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. The remaining market includes the USA, Australia, Canada, and many Middle Eastern countries. Young coconuts have two major advantages when it comes to export as compared to other tropical fruits: long shelf life and ease of handling, as their husks protect them from damage during transport.

Possible Farm Income

Planting materials of the Nam Wan variety are available for commercial use in several places in the Philippines, including the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) in Zamboanga City. The author, after an experiment confirming the local adoptability of Nam Hom, decided to go into its commercialization. He however found it difficult to obtain a sufficient number of genuine germinated seed nuts of Nam Hom for commercialization. The seedlings being sold by many plant collectors are of doubtful quality as these were not grown in isolation.

In addition, the price of the germinated seedlings is quite high. It is possible that in three to five years, a considerable number of genuine quality seed nuts will be available for the commercialization of Nam Hom. It is recommended that those who grow this variety for purposes of seed nut production grow the plants in isolation after checking that these are genuine planting materials.

The potential income from Nam Wan production can be projected based on the results of local adaptability trials. The motivation for commercialization is that almost all Filipinos who have tasted Nam Wan find its sweet taste refreshing and satisfying. This is not so with Nam Hom as most Filipinos appreciate its sweet taste but not its Pandan aroma, which some Filipinos dislike. A Nam Wan tree can produce a minimum of 120 marketable nuts per year.

At Php5/nut, each tree can provide a gross income of Php600/year. Since plants of this variety can be planted at a population density of 200/ha, the 200 trees can provide a gross income of Php120,000/ha per year. This translates into a regular income of Php10,000/month/ha.

On the average, a fruit contains 100 g of tender nuts and 250 ml of sweet water, both equivalent to 12 ounces of bottled soft drinks. Many health conscious individuals would rather buy a coconut with a tender nutritious nut for a healthy drink rather than a carbonated soft drink for the same price. The income estimates given above are very conservative, considering that many smallholders in Thailand are earning twice the estimated amount mentioned above.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2014 issue.