When you sit on your lanai at your beautiful vacation rental in Kihei enjoying a cup of coffee and planning out your day (Surfing lesson? Tour the rainforest of Hana on horseback?) you are bound to notice the ubiquitous coconut palms rustling gently in the breeze. If you are inclined to look skyward as you explore Maui, you’ll soon notice that these slender trees can be found almost anywhere on the island.

In the wild, coconuts prefer sandy soil and tolerate high levels of salinity. Their tolerance to salt has allowed the coconut to become established on warm, tropical beaches all over the world. Despite the cosmopolitan nature of the coconut it continues to be considered an exotic oddity in its natural state. While other tropical fruits like banana and mango have become common in groceries across the United States, the coconut remains an exotic oddity, primarily available as preserved products to garnish desserts.

Unfortunately, coconut palms are an exclusively tropical species of palm tree. They do not tolerate frost or periods of cold, trees will grow poorly and may die if the temperature drops below 40F for extended periods of time. Additionally, they require full sun exposure year round and grow to nearly 100 feet tall, making them difficult to cultivate to maturity in greenhouses or as house plants.

The coconut itself is not a nut, botanically speaking, but a drupe. Drupes are simple fruits containing a single seed. However, unlike most drupes the edible portion of a coconut (the water and white “meat” inside the seed) is more like the part of popcorn that we eat than to the edible parts of other drupes, like apricots.

The edible portion of coconut contains a higher proportion of saturated fats to unsaturated fats than almost any other food, even butter and lard, but has less total fat per serving than almonds. Coconut is also a good source of iron and zinc.

Because coconut is calorie dense, grows readily in marginal soils, and the fruits store well; it is a staple food in many cultures around the world. Coconut is commercially produced for food and fibers in South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, South East Asia, and Polynesia. The oil can be extracted for cooking or fuel, the flesh is eaten raw, dried, or cooked and it is edible at any stage of the coconut’s development.

But the coconut palm is also valued for the fruit’s husk, the tree’s large waxy fronds, and the soft wood of the trunk. The husk of coconuts is spun into coir for wall hangings, rugs, and rope or it can be processing into a potting media with similar properties to peat. The fronds are be woven into sturdy bowls, hats, fans and other decorative items. The trunks of coconut palms are sometimes carved into Tiki, the fierce-looking, wooden sculptures seen at many Maui resorts and restaurants.

The curious, commendable coconut is an important crop all around the world, and here on Maui. Surely, all this information will make those iconic silhouettes in your Maui vacation photos a little more memorable and the view from your South Maui condo‘s lanai a little more interesting.