A Coconut Apple A Day . . .

I’m not saying I know everything about coconut palms and coconuts, but I do feel I have a decent working knowledge. This all comes courtesy of being with Joe, a palm enthusiast, for 35 years and gardening with him in South Florida for 8 of those years. Imagine my surprise when I was on a late-night, channel-surfing expedition and discovered “Les Stroud’s Wild Harvest” on my local PBS station and something entirely new about coconuts — at least to Joe and me.

The show is part travelogue, part cooking instruction, and a complete celebration of cultures. Mr. Stroud, along with Chef Paul, travel to locales, where they and local chefs are challenged to prepare dishes using locally sourced ingredients. On the show I caught, the pair was in Belize and one of the ingredients used was coconut apple, which was cut up, eaten raw, and used in a salad.

I had never heard of coconut apple, so I was immediately confused and intrigued. Was it a tropical apple? Was it from a specific type of palm tree that I had never heard of? Did it taste like an apple, a coconut, or somewhere in-between? At that late-night moment, I made it my business to taste coconut apple.

Coconut palms are truly amazing. Nearly everything is useful — the trunks can be used for building, the fronds for thatching and weaving, but it’s the fruit — the coconut — that is truly astonishing. Drinkable and eatable, a coconut is a nutritional feast.

We have two coconut palms growing in our backyard. They swoop out over the canal, and they’re the last two of the 16 we once had until Hurricane Irma raised our anxieties and we removed 14 of them. Now, the last two remaining soar skyward. Each May, we have them trimmed — lower fronds and any coconuts are removed — for hurricane season. By the time the season ends, new clusters of coconuts are already developing.

In order to sample coconut apple, I needed a sprouting coconut. The coconuts currently in our trees are too immature and green. I needed an older coconut, one that had a brown outer shell and was sprouting, ideally about 10” tall, according to Jardinieria On.

Fortunately, coconuts float and there’s always plenty floating up and down the canal with the currents. Often, Joe and I fish these out to sprout them. Sometimes, they’ve already sprouted while floating. (Like I said earlier, they’re astonishing.)

By the time I had heard about coconut apple, two of the rescued palms had sprouted. These I had already planted in shallow pots and they were too mature to be of any use. Shortly after the program aired, though, another had started to sprout.

Now is probably a good time to do a brief botany lesson on the structure of a coconut. I found this illustration online.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to a coconut than the ones sold in supermarkets, which typically sell the endocarp, the small, dark brown seed. In order for me to reach the coconut apple, I needed to get through the woody outer layer (exocarp), the fibrous husk (mesocarp), and then the endocarp.

The coconut apple begins to form once the coconut is separated from the coconut palm. After several months, the coconut water thickens into a sponge-like consistency, eventually becoming the embryo of a new coconut and nourishing it through its early stages of growth.

With that lesson over, it’s time to get back to my coconut apple. After several weeks of growth, it was time for me to take a literal crack at opening up the coconut to reach the coconut apple.

I began by hacking the exocarp with a machete. Not an easy thing to do, but that probably has more to do with my machete skills and fear of losing a finger or two than anything else.

As I chopped and chipped my way through the coconut, I was reminded at how amazing it is that a green coconut sprout can slice through the husk and outer shell as if it were butter, as shown in the photo below (from a previous post).

At some point, I added a pry bar to the equation and slowly worked sections of the exocarp and mesocarp away from the coconut (endocarp).

Then, with a whack, I saw the white endosperm, the edible meat of the coconut. I had shattered a piece of endocarp shell, revealing the coconut apple. In all honesty, the experts made this whole process look easy and, I will say, elegant — as if they were tapping around a hard-boiled egg and gently removing the shell. I, on the other hand, was a sweaty mess and my coconut didn’t look much better.

A short while later, I had peeled back enough to see and ultimately remove the coconut apple. Its surface had a yellow tint to it — and this tasted almost bitter and earthy.

The white stuff, though — spongy, airy, and with a consistency of fine Styrofoam — didn’t taste like apple or coconut. It was, instead, subtly sweet. As I chewed it, it seemed to melt the way cotton candy does —  but unlike spun sugar, it’s more nutritious. Coconut apple, like coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut meat, has a long list of health benefits, including high amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin C, and other minerals.

After my taste test, I looked down at the coconut sprout, beaten, battered, and separated from the embryo that nourished it. According to the experts, the downfall of harvesting the coconut apple was that the coconut sprout had to be sacrificed.

My little sprout had some decent roots, though. On this day of experimentation, I thought I’d give this little palm a chance at living,  and I planted it in a pot filled with fresh potting soil. As of this writing, it’s still alive, although some of the older outer leaves have turned brown. The center leaves are still green. Each day, I look to see if any new growth is emerging from the center, but I’m not holding out much hope. It was a brutal separation.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I tried coconut apple . . . but would I eat it again? Since it’s labor intensive, I don’t think I’ll ever be a coconut-apple-a-day kind of guy. Besides, when I get hungry, I like to eat at that moment — and not spend a good chunk of time chopping, hacking, pounding, and prying open the package to get to the sweet treat. On the other hand, if I honed my machete skills . . . maybe?

Whether or not I make coconut apple a staple of my diet, one thing is for sure. It’s just one more reason to admire the incredible, edible, usable coconut.

Does Spring Fever Exist In South Florida?

As I write this, I’m sitting on the patio by the pool, enjoying one of the last cold fronts to reach all the way down the Florida peninsula. The temperature is hovering around 80 degrees and there’s a coolness on the breeze.

It’s delightful! It’s the most perfect spring day in May — make that the most perfect northern spring day in May, because this is March in Florida.

Continue reading

Bloomin’ Update 64: Harvest Days, SoFlo Style

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget it’s autumn. That has become my annual thought the longer I live and garden in South Florida. I know many plants, even down here, have a season, but it’s not until I see the national weather forecast for the Dakotas, my friend’s pictures of her New England view of painted leaves, and other garden blogs filled with photos of gardens in seasonal transition that I truly realize that the times, they are a-changin’.

It’s at this moment, in a land where most feel there are only two seasons — hot and hotter — that I become more aware of the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, and of the shimmering, golden hue of the sunlight in the late, late afternoon. We were even given a small tease as a weak “cold” front made its down the Florida peninsula for a day, delivering — at the very least — a drop in humidity. Other than that, though, autumn here is pretty much summer.

On the other hand, the combination of these subtle changes and a pandemic that’s kept me firmly planted at home has given me a reason to not only harvest bananas (above), but to also collect seeds and start new plants.

Pride of Barbados

This small flowering tree or tall flowering shrub began as a gift from friends. As hard as I prune it to keep it short, it seems happiest when it’s allowed to fully grow upward. Then, at the top of its stems, clusters of orchid-like flowers bloom. In turn, these are followed by dangling seed pods, which I quickly collect before they pop open so I don’t have a forest of Pride.

One pod I let dry on my potting bench. When I cut it open, I was surprised to find the seeds in an alternating pattern. I’m not sure if this is typical or a quirk of this particular pod. Either way, I was still impressed that nature could produce something so perfect and symmetrical.

I planted some of the seeds. Within days, they sprouted and now I have a pot of seedlings that need to be potted up. I’m still not sure if I’ll plant these when they’re a little older or if I’ll give them away.

Mexican Cotton Plant

One of my favorite plants that I’ve grown is Mexican Cotton Plant. I have mine in a pot, and I’ve always been able to keep it pruned to encourage branching and stronger growth. This year, though, something happened. After flowering, it produced the buds that would eventually open to reveal cotton. That’s when I noticed the leaves dying. My hope was for the plant to live long enough for these buds to mature, but that wasn’t the case.

I harvested the buds and let them dry. In a matter of days, they popped open, revealing the cotton balls. I pulled out the cotton, each piece of fluff covering a seed. These are now planted and I’m waiting for them to sprout.

White African Iris

Last year, a friend gave me some seed pods from his White African Iris. I dried the pod, removed the seeds, and planted them. They are now flowering for the first time.

Crinum Lily

One of my favorite plants is the Crinum Lily. Large and tropical, the plant is related to amaryllis rather than lilies — and it can easily fill a bed with its sword-like leaves. The treat is when they send up a flower spike (above). Within a day, the flower cluster opens even more (below).

They also spread. One way is for the mother bulb to produce pups. These can be separated and then planted. I tend to do this on a regular basis to keep the mother plants looking clean and neat.

The other method is fascinating. When a flower is pollinated, a bulblet forms on the flower spike. As it matures, its weight will either help bend the flower stalk to the ground or it will simply fall off. Recently, while cleaning the Crinums, separating pups, and weeding, I found a bulblet that had fallen to the ground, where it had germinated. At first glance, I thought the withered bulblet was a stone.

King Palm

Normally, when  palm trees produce their inflorescence, Joe cuts them off to prevent becoming overrun with sprouting palm trees everywhere — except this time. I was interested in harvesting seeds from the King Palm, so we let the hull-like structure (peduncular bract) that contains the small flowers remain attached to the tree. The photo above is of another peduncular bract that we cut in half to see how tightly packed the inflorescence is.

After a few weeks, the bract popped open, revealing its multi-branched inflorescence.

In time, the inflorescence branches spread and bees are drawn to the hundreds of small beige flowers.

Back To The Bananas

I realize bananas may not be everyone’s idea of a fall fruit. That title usually belongs to apples and pears and pumpkins. This year, though, the banana plant happened to produce just in time for a fall harvest — and there were lots of bananas. I added them to cereal, shared them with neighbors, froze some for future use, and tried my hand at banana bread for the first time.

My neighbor’s recipe called for loaf pans, but all I had was a Bundt pan — so that’s what it had to be. Not as tasty as my neighbor’s — but all in all, a delicious way to celebrate the season in a SoFlo way.

Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon Giveaway

I wanted to take a few moments to thank everyone who participated in the recent giveaway of Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, by Linda Jane Holden, and to congratulate Carol H. for being the lucky winner!

The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 2

In the overnight hours before landscape designer Victor Lazzari opened his English-style garden to members of a local garden club, a cold front made its way down the entire length of the Florida peninsula. Wind and light rain arrived in the darkness, but by morning, a cool breeze had pushed away any lingering clouds, unveiling a brilliantly blue sky. The typical South Florida humidity was yesterday’s memory.

Continue reading

The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 1

It’s interesting to watch Victor Lazzari in his South Florida garden. At 6’1” and 290 lbs. of muscle and tattoos, he’s certainly a looming presence. It’s also where he happens to be the most comfortable, walking along the garden’s hidden paths, gently cupping roses in hands that are just as capable of lifting 350 lbs. at the gym, and inhaling each bloom’s sweet or subtle scent.

Most strikingly, though, Lazzari’s garden is done in the English style. Yes, an English garden is growing in South Florida.

Continue reading

The Great Hydrangea Experiment

I long for hydrangea days.

As much as I love living and gardening in South Florida, I can’t help but deeply miss the hydrangeas in my New York garden. I loved photographing them from their first green buds in spring to the fullness of color during their bloom time to the their faded glory in fall to winter’s dried-brown clusters.

Continue reading

Gardening In The Cone Of Anxiety

This isn’t the post I had planned to write. That original post has to wait for another day because of Hurricane Dorian — and before I get into the meat of this post, please, understand that I am in no way making light of the situation in the Bahamas. That is tragic. That is devastating — and I’m not even sure those words are strong enough to fully capture what the people there have experienced and are continuing to face each day.

Continue reading

Son Of Seed Mustache From Space

A long time ago— May, actually — in a galaxy far, far away— just outside of the front door — an alien-looking seed mustache from space appeared on the tip of a desert rose branch. That was the general gist of an earlier post — but after a couple of months, my sci-fi fantasy that is South Florida gardening has become, “Captain, the pod doors have opened.”

Continue reading