Coconut Medicine

Our cook, Mary, is the in-charge for our three coconut trees. She tells the gardener when to cut the ripe coconuts down, and monitors their quality. A couple of days ago she told me that the coconuts have become dry -- she brought a pot full of halved fruit, to show me the white flesh.

I suggested that she call the coconut tree man. He had come at about this time in 2006, when the coconuts were falling before ripening, and did the trees a lot of good by climbing up to the crown and applying a poultice made from rock salt, mothballs, sambrani (a kind of incense), turmeric and edible camphor, bound with oil.

The coconut tree man in 2006. He has a heavy black rope slung over his shoulder, and wears a cone-shaped basket for his machete. The gardener is mixing up the poultice.

The prescription for dry coconuts is different. In addition to camphor, turmeric and salt, he wants something called vepampunakku, which he says is available from nurseries. Sadly, the nursery which I used to go to, the enormous and serene Saundarya, has long gone to development, and most nurseries are in the suburbs. (For that matter, the coconut man himself lives in the Srinivasapuram slum, which is about to be emptied and its inhabitants transported to a distant project – what will we do then?)

Mary discovered from him, and told me, that vepampunakku is a paste made from the seeds of the vepam tree, and that we have one in our garden –a smallish slender tree. She said that the fruits are also medicinal, but that the crows eat them all.

If anyone knows more about the vepam tree, or vepampunakku (and where to get it!), I’d be interested to hear about it. update: Now I feel silly: vepam is neem, it turns out. So that's why it's in our garden. Though I don't know why it's so scrawny -- neem is a big, spreading tree. Even its shade is supposed to be healthy. My gardener rode his bicycle to a nursery in Adyar and bought bags of "Sam's Nutri Neem-Plus 100% Pure Neem Powder, Fortified with Turmeric, Castor, Pungam and Illupai." Rs. 25 per kg. I still don't know what pungam and illupai are...


Jennifer said...

very interesting post. I am very interested in learning about herbs/plants in India. I looked up those words.. for pungam see -
for illuppai see
both and more at
Does the coconut man climb the tree with ladder or rope (old fashioned method). Just today I was recounting a story of our trip to Kerala last year- we called the coconut man to climb the tree for tender coconuts. He came climbing with the ropes. No ladder present. He was complaining to my family that now a days his son and younger generations want to use the new technology (ie. ladders!) to climb trees and he fears their art is dying. What strength they have to climb like that!

Nancy said...

Thanks for commenting -- and for giving the links. It's very interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

so which nursery do you go to Nancy?

I tried so hard to hunt down these Inscape Gardenfolks. No luck at all:

Anna said...

Fascinating, this is so exotic, Nancy, and so unlike our own tree man with his hydraulic platform and protective clothing. The poultice sounds somewhat eccentric too - moth balls - for camphor, I suppose.