A Long-Term Survival Guide ² My Quick Guide, To Edible Tropical Plants: Coconut Trees


Typical coconut palm, and cutaway views of young and old nuts.

How to collect Palm Sap from coconut palms. To collect sap, climb the tree morning and evening, and bruise the coconut flowering stalk, which will start to ooze sap. The stalk is bent over and tied, and a container is tied under it to catch the sap. Boil down the sap to make palm syrup, and palm sugar, or let it ferment, to make wine. Keep fruit bats away from trees you are collecting sap from, as they like sap, and they carry a deadly disease in their saliva.

Coconuts in husks, hanging on tree. Cutaway view, showing nut inside husk. Open nut, showing meat inside. The coconut is the most common of all edible tropical plants, and it is found on almost every tropical island. In tropical climates your first survival priority is to find drinking water, and a small island without a river or stream might not provide any other water source than its coconuts. The juice is rich in potassium and other minerals. The young flesh looks like yogurt or gelatin and is delicious. The old flesh is hard and can be good to eat in reasonable quantities, and when shredded or processed into milk is a great addition to various dishes. The sprouting nuts are full of a solid flesh which drips with oil. In addition to food value, coconuts also have some medicinal properties. The juice of green coconuts (immature fruits) is beneficial. In case of dehydration, it can be excellent mixed with some lime juice, like in the song. Note that coconuts have a mild laxative effect, if you drink more than three full coconuts in one day, so limit yourself to three per day. To preserve the meat from older nuts, you can spread it in the sun until it is completely dry, but put it in a container every night, or animals will steal it, or contaminate it.

When you find sprouting nuts like these, the inside is edible raw, delicious, and dripping with coconut oil.

The best drinking water is in the green nuts still hanging on the trees. The problem is obtaining those immature coconuts. When you find coconuts on the beach, they are already mature and can be used for their hard flesh or to make coconut milk and oil, but they contain very little water. So there is no other way to get the water-rich young nuts, except by harvesting them from the trees. It is possible to build ladders from sticks and bamboo to reach some lower coconuts, but others may be over 100 feet off the ground.

The simplest way to get to the nuts is to climb, and there are two basic techniques. Your skin will probably get scraped a bit the first few times you climb a coconut, but if you get a dozen coconuts full of water and flesh, it is well worth the effort. After a week, climbing the trees becomes second nature and the collection of coconuts is one of the easier and more enjoyable survival skills you will learn. Both techniques should be done barefoot and barehanded. A long sleeve T-shirt might save your skin from abrasion against the tree while you are learning. The first method is called the front foot technique. You put your hands close to each other on the back of the trunk, and put one foot in front of the other one, in front of you on the tree. By keeping pressure on the trunk with the balls of your feet and toes, you walk up, alternating moving your feet and hands. This technique works best on trees that are wide at the base, and leaning slightly. It is easy to learn, but requires good balance and arm strength. The second method is called the frog technique, and it is used to climb vertical trees, unless they are very wide. Start with your legs spread on each side of the tree, with your knees bent, and with the soles of your feet flat against the trunk. This position looks like the legs of a frog. Unlike the front foot technique, you place one hand up and behind the tree and the other hand at your chest level on the front side of the tree. In that way you apply pressure from both sides pushing your body up while thrusting up with your legs by extending them. You quickly bring up both of your feet at the same time and squeeze the trunk in the frog position. In this position your feet support almost all of your body weight comfortably and you can rest for a few seconds, before repeating this move. A variation of the frog technique is where you put your two feet in a circle of rope or cloth. This helps you to keep the pressure with your feet against the tree. Also the added surface of the rope applied against the tree helps you, by adding more contact area and giving you more leverage to go up. When you get to the top of the tree, you can reach the coconuts. I like to cut them loose with a knife, but if you don¶t have one, you can also twist a coconut until the stem breaks and the nut falls. Once you¶ve freed enough coconuts, making your way down is easy, but it also the time when beginners abrade themselves. The technique for climbing down is very similar to the frog technique, as you keep your legs and feet in the same position. You can try hopping down step by step in the inverse to the way you went up, but most people just lower their hands one by one behind the trunk, and let the soles of their feet drag against the tree. It is while sliding down that you might scrape your feet, forearms, or even your chest. All this sounds like a lot of effort but young coconuts are worth the trouble. If you ever spend any extended time in the tropics, this could be one of the most important skills to master, and you will love the juice and soft flesh. Most people should be able to master these methods, but if you can¶t do it and you still need coconuts to survive, you can try climbing with pieces of webbing or ropes. One goes around the waist as a belt, then three are made into loops and used with a prussic slip knot; one for each foot, and one for your hands. The one for your hands is also tied to your belt as a safety measure. To make a prussic knot, make a small loop in one end of the rope, wrap the free end around the trunk, and insert through the loop. Pull on it and you have a prussic knot. Those knots grip the tree under tension, and allow you to go up, or hold you if you slip. Once the pressure is released (for example the pressure is on your feet, releasing the tension on the rope in your hands), you can raise the knot higher and re-apply pressure to it. It is a very slow process, but less physical, and safer than climbing with bare hands and feet. On shorter trees, you can pull some nuts down using a long pole with a hook attached to the end, but many trees are so tall that this is not practical. If you have two or more people, you can make a rope, then throw it over the top of each tree. (It is easier to throw a weight tied to a smaller cord over first, then use the cord to pull your rope over.) The largest people then use the rope to pull the smallest person up to the nuts. Once you have the coconuts, you still have to remove the husk, to get at the nut inside. If you don¶t have a chopping tool, the easiest way to remove the husks is by sharpening a stake (by rubbing it against an abrasive rock), then setting it solidly into the ground, point up. The coconut is held in both hands and driven onto the stake, then twisted to pry off a chunk of husk. Repeat until the husk is loose enough to pull off by hand. Your stake will last longer if you use dead, dry wood, or harden the point in a fire.

You can also sharpen a limb projecting from any fallen log that may be handy, and use this as your improvised husk removing stake. The nut can be cracked open by tapping around the center with a rock until it separates, or you can make a hole at one eye, using a sharpened stick. Other Uses: Use coconut oil to cook, and to protect metal objects from corrosion. Use the oil to treat saltwater chafing, sunburn, and dry skin. Use the oil in improvised torches. Use the tree trunk as building material and the leaves as thatch. Hollow out the stump for use as a food container. The coconut husks are good flotation devices, and the husk's fibers are used to weave ropes and cordage. The husk makes a good abrasive. Dried husk fiber is an excellent tinder. A smoldering husk helps to repel mosquitoes. Smoke caused by dripping coconut oil in a fire also repels mosquitoes. To render coconut oil, put the coconut meat in the sun, or heat it over a slow fire, or boil it in a pot of water. Coconuts washed out to sea are a good source of fresh liquid for the sea survivor. The coconut husk, or coir, has long fibers which are used to make rope, nets and doormats. Pieces of husk can be used as a strainer and as scrubbers to clean floors and cooking pots. The coconut shell can be sanded and polished and made into dishes, drums and buttons. The stiff leaves are used for fans and are braided to make room dividers, mats and baskets. Leaf midribs can be used in brooms and as meat skewers. Hawaiians used the midribs to string kukui nuts for torches. The dried trunk can be used for building and furniture. The wood was also used by Polynesians to make canoes and large drums. Palm sugar and alcoholic beverages are made by boiling down the liquid from very young coconut flower clusters. Coconut husks also make wonderful planters. The roots grow right into the coconut husk and absorbs moisture trapped in the husk. You just have to remove the hard coconut "nut" shell to expose the husk.. I also like to drill some holes in the bottom of the husk to let the water run through and prevent pooling. One third of the coconut's make-up is the hairy husk that is soaked in salt water until it is soft enough to spin into rope or twine, which is known for its durability. The rope, called coir but pronounced coil, is highly resistant to salt water and does not break down like other fibers, including hemp. The husk provides fuel for cooking as well as fiber for making clothing. Coir is also used to make mats. Soap made from coconut oil lathers exceptionally well. The coconut shell serves as a bowl or cup, and can be carved into other household items such as spoons, forks, combs, needles, and handles for tools. Finally, when the tree is no longer producing coconuts, it can be cut down and its attractive wood, called "porcupine wood" can be used to make furniture. Water from a young coconut not only provided a refreshing drink in the steamy equatorial countries, but in times of medical emergency it was used as a substitute for glucose. During World War II young coconut water became the emergency room glucose supply when there was no other sterile glucose available. Hearts of palm, cylindrical stalks from new, unopened leaf shoots at the top of the coconut tree, are eaten fresh in tropical countries. Added to salads, they are sliced to provide a crunchy snap to the bowl of greens. Coconut oil is made by sun-drying the coconut meat. After crushing and grinding the dried meat, coconut milk is made by pouring boiling water over the grated coconut, and kneading it to extract as much liquid as possible. Next, the milk is strained off and boiled gently (for a long time) to evaporate the liquid, leaving only the oil behind. Dried coconut meat (or copra) has an oil content that ranges from 50 to 70 percent. Filtering is used to remove impurities and particles from the oil. The left over copra, called coco meal or coco cake, is useful as high-protein animal food. To make coconut milk, put the meat of a freshly grated coconut into a bowl and pour 2 cups of boiling water over it to cover. Set it aside for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain off the coconut milk through a strainer or damp cloth, pressing to remove all the liquid. Using your hands, squeeze through the fingers any remaining coconut milk from the grated pieces. You now have a thick, richly flavored coconut cream for making creamy coconut desserts. Cooking with Coconut Milk: Because the exceptional flavor of fresh coconut milk breaks down easily, add it at the very end of the cooking process. Because of its high fat content, coconut oil makes a very stable cooking oil, able to withstand the heat of stir frying, light frying, and baking.

Sea Grapes:

Sea Grapes grow wild on many tropical beaches, and are a good survival food.

The Seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) is a sprawling bush or small tree that is found near sea beaches throughout tropical America and the Caribbean, including southern Florida. It reaches a maximum height of 8 metres, but most specimens are little more than 2 metres tall. It has large, round, leathery leaves (up to 25 cm in diameter) with a primary vein that has a red color extending from the base, and the entire leaf turns red as it ages. The bark is smooth and yellowish. In late summer it bears purplish fruit, about 2 cm in diameter, in large grape-like clusters. It is an easy plant to recognize. The tree is unable to survive frost. However, it is moderately tolerant of shade, and highly tolerant of salt, so it is often planted to stabilize beach edges and prevent erosion; it is also planted as an ornamental shrub. The fruit is edible, tastes like grapes, and can even be used to make jam.

Sea Grapes often produce large amounts of fruit, but only in season.


Breadfruit is easy to recognize and good to eat (once cooked), but the sap can blind you if it gets in your eyes.

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), is a tree and fruit that is native to both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean islands. It has also been widely planted in tropical regions elsewhere. Breadfruit grows to a height of 20 m. The large and thick leaves are deeply cut into pinnate lobes. All parts of the tree yield latex, a milky sap which can cause blindness if it gets in your eyes. The latex can be used for boat caulking. The trees have male and female flowers growing on the same tree. It is one of the highest-yielding food plants, a single tree producing up to 800 or more fruits per season. The grapefruit-sized ovoid fruit have a rough surface.

Some types of breadfruit have larger spines or knobs, but they look the same when cut open, and are just as edible.

Breadfruit is a staple food in many tropical regions. They are very rich in starch, and before being eaten they are roasted, baked, fried or boiled. When cooked the taste is described as potato-like, or similar to fresh baked bread (hence the name). Breadfruit trees usually produce large crops at certain times of the year, but most breadfruit varieties also produce a small number of fruits throughout the year, so fresh breadfruit is always available, but somewhat rare when not in season. Breadfruit can be eaten once cooked, or can be further processed into a variety of other foods. A common product is a mixture of cooked or fermented breadfruit mash mixed with coconut milk and baked in banana leaves. Whole fruits can be cooked in an open fire, then cored and filled with other foods such as coconut milk, sugar and butter, cooked meats, or other fruits. The filled fruit can be further cooked so that the flavor of the filling permeates the flesh of the breadfruit.


Taro is easily recognized by its arrowhead-shaped leaves, and distinctive roots, known as corms.

Taro is a tropical plant grown primarily as a food for its edible corm, and also for its edible leaves. Its flowers are also eaten. Taro is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants. Taro is a traditional staple in many tropical areas of the world, and is the base for making poi in Hawaii. The plant is actually inedible if ingested raw. Severe gastrointestinal distress will occur, unless the plant is properly processed first. So COOK THOROUGHLY before eating, or you will be stricken with cramps, and will feel like you have been poisoned, the last thing you need in a survival situation. If cooking by boiling in water, change the water at least three times while cooking, to remove the acid. If baking or frying, cook taro twice as long as you think is needed, to be safe. Typical of leaf vegetables, taro leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are a good source of thiamin, riboflavin, iron, phosphorus, and zinc, and a very good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, niacin, potassium, copper, and manganese. Taro corms are very high in starch, and are a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B6, and manganese. Oxalic acid may be present in the corm and especially in the leaf, and these foods should be avoided or eaten in moderation by people with kidney disorders, gout, or rheumatoid arthritis.

Bundles of taro roots, and two kinds of cleaned taro roots.

Taro is typically boiled, stewed, or sliced and fried as tempura. The small round variety is peeled and boiled, sold either frozen, bagged in its own liquids, or canned.The taro corms range from about the size and shape of a brussels sprout to larger varieties the size of your fist. Taro chips are often used as a potato chip like snack. They have a more distinct taste than a regular potato chip.


The mango is a genus of about 35 species of tropical fruiting trees. The fruit is pale green and kidney-shaped. Mangos are large trees, reaching 35-40 m in height. After flowering, the fruit takes three to six months to ripen. The mango fruit is a drupe; when mature, it hangs from the tree on long stems. They are variable in size, and may weigh up to 2.5 kg. The ripe fruit is variably colored yellow, orange and red, reddest on the side facing the sun and yellow where shaded; green usually indicates that the fruit is not yet ripe. When ripe, the unpeeled fruit gives off a distinctive resinous slightly sweet smell. In the center of the fruit is a single flat, oblong seed. The mango is now widely cultivated as a fruit tree in frost-free tropical and subtropical climates. It is reputed to be the most commonly eaten fresh fruit worldwide. Mangos also readily naturalize in tropical climates. Some lowland forests in the Hawaiian Islands are dominated by introduced mangos and it is a common backyard fruit tree in South Florida, where it has also escaped from cultivation. The fruit flesh of a ripe mango contains about 15% sugar, up to 1% protein, and significant amounts of vitamins A, B and C. The taste of the fruit is very sweet, with some varieties having a slight acidic tang. The texture of the flesh varies markedly between different varieties; some have a soft and pulpy texture like an over-ripe plum, while others have a firmer flesh like a cantaloupe or avocado, and in some the flesh has fibers. Mangoes are very juicy; the sweet taste and high water content make them refreshing to eat, though somewhat messy. The mango is in the same family as poison ivy. Some people get dermatitis from touching mango peel or sap. Persons showing an allergic reaction after handling a mango can usually enjoy the fruit if someone else first removes the skin. The leaves are toxic.

Mangos have a very large, flat seed, so they cannot be sliced through the center. You have to be very careful not to slip and cut your fingers, when slicing the fruit from the seed. Upon examination, you'll notice the mango has opposing flat sides. Place the mango with one flat side resting on the cutting board. Slice the mango lengthwise along the flat side next to the seed, following the curve of the seed. Turn mango over and repeat on the other side. Trim the remaining fruit from seed, and remove the peels, or the fruit can be cubed in the peel, then dumped out.


The papaya is a small unbranched tree, the single stem growing to 5-10 m tall, with the spirally arranged leaves confined to the top of the trunk; the lower trunk is conspicuously scarred with the leaf scars of where older leaves and fruit were borne. The leaves are large, 50-70 cm diameter, deeply palmately lobed with 7 lobes. The flowers are produced in the axils of the leaves, maturing into the large 15-45 cm long, 10-30 cm diameter fruit. The fruit is ripe when it feels soft (like a ripe avocado or a bit softer), and its skin has attained an amber to orange hue. The primary use of the papaya is as an edible fruit. It is usually eaten raw, without the skin or seeds. Papaya is rich in an enzyme called papain (which is useful in tenderizing meat) and other proteins. Its utility is in breaking down the tough meat fibers, and it has been utilized for thousands of years in its native South America. It is included as a component in powdered meat tenderizers. Papaya enzyme is also sold in tablet form to remedy digestive problems. Recently it has been found that Papaya induces labor or miscarriage in pregnant women. The black seeds are edible, and have a spicy taste. They can be ground up, and used as a substitute for pepper.


Sugarcane is a genus of 37 species of tall grasses, native to temperate and tropical regions. It has stout, jointed fibrous stalks 2 to 6 meters tall, and a sap which is rich in sugar. It is now grown in over 200 countries. Uses of sugar cane include the production of sugar, molasses, rum, and ethanol for fuel. The thick stalk stores energy as sucrose in the sap. It is crushed to extract the juice, then sugar is produced by evaporating the water.

In most countries where sugarcane is grown, there are several foods and popular dishes derived from it. Raw sugarcane cylinders or cubes are chewed to extract the juice, and the fiber is spat out. Fresh juice is crushed from the stalks, and with a touch of lemon and ice, makes a delicious and popular drink. Molasses is made by boiling down the juice, and used as a sweetener and a syrup. Sugarcane is also fermented to make rum. Ribbon cane is a subtropical type that was once widely grown in southern United States, as far north as coastal North Carolina. The juice was extracted with horse or mule-powered crushers; the juice was boiled, like maple syrup, in a flat pan. Sugarcane is propagated from cuttings, rather than from seeds; although certain types still produce seeds, modern methods of stem cuttings have become the most common method of reproduction. Each cutting must contain at least one bud, and the cuttings are usually planted by hand. Once planted, a stand of cane can be harvested several times; after each harvest, the cane sends up new stalks. Usually, each successive harvest gives a smaller yield.


Cocoa, or Cacao is a small (4±8 m tall) evergreen tree native to South America, but now grown throughout the tropics. Its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate. The tree grows naturally in the low foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. The fruit, called a pod, is ovoid, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat; 40± 50% cocoa butter. A tree begins to bear when 4 or 5 years old. In one year, when mature, it may have 6,000 flowers, but only about 20 pods. About 300-600 seeds (10 pods) are required to produce 1 kg of cocoa paste.


Bananas are an easy plant to recognize, but some fibrous types of banana fruits should be cooked before eating. Even if there are no fruits on the banana trees you find, they are still very useful, as banana leaves are the best for wrapping other foods in, before baking or steaming. Banana leaves impart a mild flavor into rice, meat, or fish when used as a cooking wrapper. Since they are easy to recognize, using banana leaves eliminates the danger of accidentally using a poisonous leaf to wrap your food in. You can also get water from a banana tree by cutting the tree off, at one foot above ground level. Hollow out the stump, and it will fill with water. Discard the first three or four fillings, as they will be bitter, but after that the water will be good to drink. Keep the stump covered, to keep bugs and dirt out of the water. The banana stump will continue to produce water for several days.


Pineapple is another easily recognized tropical fruit, which you may find growing wild.


Although it is not a true edible plant, the hibiscus tree is one of the most useful tropical plants, ranking right up there with bamboo. The leaves can be used to make a tea, and some natives ate the young leaves, roots, and shoots, but the two most important uses of hibiscus for tropical survival purposes are making fire, and making cordage. Seasoned hibiscus wood is very dry, and it makes very good hearthboards, or two-stick hearthboards, for fire drills. You can even start a fire with this wood using the more difficult fire plow technique. The bark of the hibiscus contains very strong fibers. The bark fiber can be used to make ropes, cords, and nets for fishing or trapping. To get the fiber, pound an area of the bark with a club, then cut the bark loose at the top of the pounded area, and start stripping off the fibrous bark. Strips of bark can be pounded on a log, to make the fibers separate, and soaking in salt water also helps make them easier to separate, and easier to work with.

Hibiscus provides two basic survival needs; fire and cordage.

The hibiscus tree is a type of flowering plant with over 200 species. These plants are typically grown for their flowers. The flowers are large, with colors that will stand out. These flowers come in many different colors, all depending on the type of species they come from. The tree itself is most commonly used for landscaping, while the flower itself is typically used for ornamental purpose. For example, in the state of Hawaii the hibiscus flower is used to make leis. The sight of the hibiscus tree is a common occurrence in tropical areas. Even though it is well known for its decorative properties, it has many other uses. In Tahiti, the leaves were wrapped around food to be cooked, and were also used as plates. The leaves are fed to cattle in Southeast Asia. The roots and young shoots are reported to have been eaten by aborigines in Queensland. The Polynesians ate the young leaves and used the bark fibers to make ropes, and the adult bark to make "tapa", a traditional clothing. The bark fiber is used for strings and ropes for making fishing nets and caulking boats. In Hawaii the wood is used to make outrigger canoes. Several medicinal uses are listed as well, including to cool fevers and soothe coughs (tea from leaves), treat dysentery (tea from bark), ear infections and abscesses (poultice from flowers), as laxative (bark and flower tea), etc. The light timber is attractively patterned and easily worked. Another use of the hibiscus is its ability to enhance the taste of tea. The hibiscus tea is a well known drink which has lasted throughout the centuries. This drink has been around as far back as ancient Egypt. The tea has been known to prevent bladder infections, as well as help with high blood pressure.

The trees are very ornamental, with large heart-shaped leaves and a dense foliage. The leaves are usually dark green, but there are selections available with variegated or purplish foliage. The hibiscus-like flowers are bright yellow with a crimson centre, and usually point down on the tree or slightly sideways. They are about 10-15 cm (4"-6") wide when fully-open and usually last a single day only, falling off at the end of the day or the next morning, when lots of day-old flowers can be seen on the ground.

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