5 Things You'll Learn From Maui's Part-Farm, Part-School "Coconut Information"

Veer off a dead end dirt road, climb a steep hill, & cross a gulch entangled in tropical shrubbery to find this Maui gem.

By Paul Jebara

23 December 2019

“I call this my ‘Get Rich Never’ scheme; I should not be in business and no one should even be coming here,” Ryan Burden jokes midway through a captivating spiel on why he founded Coconut Information on Maui. It’s not that he’s cynical about dedicating a business to preaching about what he contends is the most crucial plant on Earth. It’s that all this knowledge, which has been so historically vital to sustaining native Pacific Islander communities, has over time become deprioritized, lost, or forgotten. That’s why Burden is here to help.

The open kitchen at Coconut Information, a farm and education center founded by Ryan Burden | Paul Jebara

But what does a self-professed “white kid from California” know about coconuts? Turns out, a lot. Burden is aiming to resurrect true admiration for the coconut, reminding locals and enlightening visitors about all its benefits. After a workshop at Coconut Information, I myself had become a coco-convert.

A world away from the Valley Isle’s polished resort communities is its refreshingly rugged North Shore, where Burden’s farm and learning center is situated. You’ll find Coconut Information off a dead end dirt road in Kaupakulua, after climbing a steep hill and crossing a gulch peppered with ducks, entangled in all the tropical shrubbery you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was the root-to-fruit education I’d receive on coconuts that very morning.

Burden explains which coconut is best for harvesting meat, collecting its husk, and drinking its water | Paul Jebara

“Hawaii is essentially like a desert island,” he continues. “We import 95% of our food so it doesn’t feel like it, but there’s definitely not enough food to feed everyone who lives here. If everyone on the island got as jazzed as I am and planted seven coconut trees, we’d be good to go.”

Burden, a native Californian, made solid money after selling his dot-com company—enough to relocate to Maui, experiment growing his own food, and eventually, after becoming obsessed with coconut water, developed an unwavering awe and formidable passion for coconuts and their miraculous versatility.

“You could plant a row of kale, work your ass off keeping the bugs, and it’ll still do its thing: Kale is going to die. But you could plant a row of coconuts in virtually the same amount of time, and it could literally feed my grandchildren, since the plants will fruit for more than 100 years,” Burden adds while frothing up fresh-made coconut cream for our welcome coffee.

That long, huh? I remember thinking as my gaze shifted to the multi-colored coconuts that sat around the property like gnomes hiding in plain sight. They were everywhere. And so were unexpected factoids, intriguing tidbits, and killer recipes (like a coconut “noodle” stir-fry) that Burden relayed during my time at Coconut Information. Here, five of my most memorable revelations.

Coconuts vary in appearance, from color to size, but are all the same plant species | Paul Jebara

1. Even if they look different, all coconuts are the same—just like humans.

“Most people think if a coconut is green, it’s automatically a young coconut. You see it all the time in recipes that say you need ‘a young green coconut,’” says Burden. “But the truth is they naturally come in a ton of different colors and combinations—oranges, browns, greens, tans. The trees vary in size, too, from dwarf to super-tall.”

In fact, despite looking different, all coconuts are genetically identical: “They’re a single species, just like us, with infinite variations produced over time through interbreeding.”

READ MORE: A Local's Guide To Oahu

2. Coconuts are hardy plants.

“We’re talking about a prehistoric grass that’s been around longer than many other plants. They don’t only survive hurricanes, but thrive off of them because that’s how they spread,” says Burden. Thanks to air pockets that form inside the coconut fruit, along with the sweet water that we can buy from the grocery store (not as nutritious as a fresh batch, Burden hints consistently), they can float on the water’s surface for up to six months. When they wash up on a sandy beach or atoll, they sprout and implant themselves into the ground.

“Coconuts have male and hermaphrodite flowers, which don’t usually open at the same time, so they rely on cross-pollination. Coconuts get lots of help from bees, from the wind, and other natural methods.”

Burden’s workshop includes cooking lessons that highlight coconuts, including fresh-made coconut milk that you can bring home | Paul Jebara

3. The Hawaiian word for coconuts has a profound origin.

“Hawaiians call their teachers kumu, which has different levels of meaning, but the older word means source, or knowledge. While the name for the coconut fruit is ni’u, the coconut tree is called kumu nui, which translates to ‘great source,’” he explains.

Unlike avocados, for example, which fruit once or twice a year, coconuts have a unique fruiting pattern aligned with every moon cycle. In other words, they provide food year round for up to a century. “If you take a baby coconut and plant it, it’ll feed your children, your children’s children, and maybe the generation after. Because of this, Hawaiians traditionally would plant a new coconut tree to commemorate a new birth.”

Coconuts have the potential to provide all basic necessities and more, from food to water and shelter, and materials that can be used for clothing and crafts. The coconut tree really is a great source.

The gelatinous beginnings of a layer of coconut meat from a young fruit | Paul Jebara

4. Coconuts have many purposes—more than you think.

A coconut tree is the renaissance man of the plant world: they can do almost anything. We’ll break down a few things that can be procured from a single tree:

The water: “The coconut is essentially a bottle of drinking water—the perfect drinking water. It has a similar electrolyte PH balance as blood plasma, so you can even take it intravenously to rehydrate. But if you’re going on a fishing or canoe trip, coconuts are already sealed and can be opened up whenever you need them. And when you’re done, you can toss it away to biodegrade on its own.”

The husk: “The husk is what surrounds the coconut. Hawaiians made strong ropes out of these fibers and that’s what longer-shaped coconuts were bred for: longer strands for the rope. If you have a doormat at home, it’s probably also made of coconut fibers.”

The shell: “Coconuts have a seriously awesome shell, which you can use as a cup or a bowl to easily serve food in, but you can cook right in it, too. The carbon in the shell is really stable, so it’s used within Brita water filters and for activated charcoal supplements.”

The meat: “The meat of the coconut is found inside the coconut shell. Mature fruit have a ton of meat. Some Polynesian cultures get up to 60% of their calories from coconuts, which comprises the majority of their diets.”

Coconut fronds are woven into baskets and other traditional Hawaiian handicrafts | Paul Jebara

The leaves: “The fronds are super versatile, traditionally used for weavings, hats, and even building walls.”

The flowers: “When they bloom, they’re harvested for coconut nectar or coconut sugar. If you leave the nectar to ferment, it becomes a hard alcohol.”

5. If they’re so valuable, why are they so underappreciated?

Palm trees and coconuts are a symbol of the tropics, but Burden points out that most of the images we see, on merchandise for example, don’t show the actual coconuts, just the trees. “They’ve been neutered!” he proclaims.

What’s more, Burden points to what he calls the “homeowner’s dilemma,” when coconut trees that have been landscaped on properties need to professionally maintained. The fruit is cut down regularly in fear of potential damage to property or people if they fall, wasting precious resources. The solution? “Place the tall trees in orchards, or just plant dwarf trees instead of paying someone to cut them down. This is supposed to be a pantry that restocks itself,” he says.

He also suggests that Hawaiian children stopped learning about the value coconuts around World War II, when native Hawaiians were instructed to “Americanize,” and implicitly feel shame and embarrassment about their heritage. This caused a natural knowledge gap that Burden aims to help revitalize. “We have to give this knowledge back to the culture.” And he’s doing just that, one coconut at a time.

Coconut Information offers 90-minute private workshops that include coconut cooking classes—which your Journy trip designer will happily arrange for you. It's just one of many off-the-beaten path experiences you can expect to find on your custom-built Journy itinerary.

Looking for more warm-weather escapes this winter? Add Thailand and Sydney to the list.

Paul Jebara