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Mountain coconuts are small fruits that grow in long grape-like clusters at the top of a palm tree. The clusters are comprised of tightly packed, shelled fruits, and each cluster contains 30 to 50 fruits, sometimes with slender branches sticking out through the dense mass. The fruits are ellipsoidal in shape, tapering at both ends, and are small in size, averaging 2 to 4 centimeters in diameter and 4 to 5.5 centimeters in length. Mountain coconuts will vary in color, depending on maturity, and will be found in shades of green, green-brown, green-black, to brown-black. The exterior shell is hard, thick, dense, and smooth, often challenging to open. The shell is typically cracked using a mallet, hammer, or rock, and once opened, the shell can be removed, revealing a meaty, white flesh. The flesh is oily, rich, and fatty, encasing a tiny hard seed around 1 to 2 centimeters in length. Some fruits may not have a developed seed, depending on maturity and size. Mountain coconuts have a mild and sweet taste reminiscent of the flavor of coconut water.
Mountain coconuts are available year-round, appearing at various points throughout the year, depending on climate and growing location.
Mountain coconuts, botanically classified as Parajubaea cocoides, are the fruits of a South American palm species belonging to the Arecaceae family. The small fruits develop in cascading bunches at the top of tall palms reaching 16 to 20 meters in height and are valued as an edible natural snack. Mountain coconut palms are also known as Coco Cumber, Cumber Coconut Combe, and Parajubaea cocoides palms and are a species primarily found in commercial cultivation in South America. Growers favor the variety for its cold tolerance, altitude hardiness, and adaptable nature, and the trees are somewhat fast-growing, producing fruit within 3 to 4 years after planting. Despite the trees being propagated as a common ornamental in markets, Mountain coconut fruits are not commercially produced. The small, husked fruits are gathered from ornamental trees planted along city sidewalks, in gardens, or backyards and are traditionally eaten as a bite-sized snack. They are also collected and sold in markets throughout Colombia and Ecuador. Mountain coconut palms produce fruits multiple times throughout the year, depending on the growing environment, but it can take up to eight months for the fruits to fall naturally from the palms. Foragers can gather the fruits when they fall naturally, or they can use a pitchfork to pull fruits from the tree. Fruits naturally falling from the tree are considered more of a delicacy than those removed prematurely in local markets.
Mountain coconuts have yet to be studied for their nutritional properties. Like other palm fruits, the small fleshy endosperms are believed to contain saturated fatty acids derived from oils that assist the body in everyday functions, including improved calcium absorption, cognitive functioning, building cellular membranes, and hormone production. The fruits are also thought to contain antioxidants that can reduce inflammation in the body and protect the cells against the damage caused by free radicals and oxidative stress.
Mountain coconuts have a mild, rich, and subtly sweet taste suited for fresh preparations. The fleshy endosperms must be removed from their tough outer shell before consumption, and most consumers crack the shells with a hammer or rock. Mountain coconuts can be eaten straight from the palm tree and are a popular snack among children in Ecuador. It is said that children are often seen in the cities cracking the fallen fruits beneath the trees and eating them as a sweet treat. Beyond fresh consumption, a few research sites mention that the edible white flesh was once used to make candies and marshmallows. It has also been said that an edible oil can be extracted from the seeds of the fruit. Mountain coconuts are generally consumed as a stand-alone ingredient, but when incorporated into candies and sugary dishes, they pair well with vanilla, chocolate, maple syrup, cinnamon, and tropical fruits. Whole, unopened Mountain coconuts will keep for several weeks when stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. Once cracked open, the flesh should be immediately consumed for the best quality and flavor. Outside of human consumption, legend has it that Mountain coconuts are a favorite food of guinea pigs. The domesticated rodent species can crack the fruits open with their front teeth and eat the endosperm and seeds as a food source.
Mountain coconut palm trees are most famously known as Quito palms, named for the mountain city in Ecuador. Quito is also the country's capital city and resides in the Andean foothills, around 2,800 meters above sea level. Throughout the city, Quito palms are found in plazas, gardens, parks, and patios, and the trees even line the road leading to the airport. Quito palms are highly valued as an ornamental tree in Quito as the species thrives in higher elevations, and some of the older palms are reported to be over one hundred years in age. The fruits of the species are occasionally nicknamed "mini coconuts" due to the exterior's similarity to a coconut, and outside of the fruits being used as a food source, the seeds are rumored to have been used in street games, jewelry construction, and pipes. Dried seeds, also known as the endocarp, were once used in games similar to marbles, where a circle was drawn on the ground, and heavier items were used to hit the seeds beyond the line.
Mountain coconuts grow on tall palm trees native to Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. Much of the history of the species is still being determined due to its rarity in wild form, leading experts to be divided over the species' origins. Despite their murky beginnings, a small wild grouping of the palms was recently discovered in 2010 in the district of Tabaconas, an area in the Andean region in the department of Cajamarca, Peru. This discovery has encouraged scientists to hypothesize that the species may have been at one time found in the wild and became increasingly rare with time outside of commercial cultivation. Mountain coconut palms have remained mainly localized to their native growing regions in South America, found in Quito, Ecuador, regions of Peru, and in Pasto, Bogota, Popayan, Cundinamarca, and Narino in Colombia. Outside of South America, the species has been introduced as an ornamental palm in New Zealand, Australia, and in Central and Northern California. It was also being trialed in England and Italy in botanic gardens for possible cultivation. When fruiting, Mountain coconuts can be foraged from domesticated trees in urban landscapes, or the fruits can be purchased through select local markets, mainly in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.