Chennai is FULL of palms. I see them everywhere - coconut palms in the backyards of old houses laden with fruit, king palms along the walls of the newer houses providing privacy from the oh-so-close next door neighbour. Little palms in pots in office rooms, huge palms forming terrace gardens on the roof. A picture of the Fish Tail Palm a.k.a Caryota Urens/ Jaggery Palm that I took at the horticultural gardens a while back prompted my interest in these tropical trees - so here goes.
So i start of with the 'king' of the palms - well, atleast in this part of the world - the Coconut tree. The coconut is used in south indian cooking quite a bit and is found towering over everything else in almost every garden. Coconuts are used in temples for just about every occassion - hence also their high demand. They are well suited to the region, requiring sandy soils, high temperatures and high humidity. India is the third largest producer of coconuts, after the Philippines and Indonesia.
Every part of the coconut tree is used for something. There are ropes, mats, roofs, hair oils, cooking oils, cosmetics, potting soils and a million other things that are made of parts of the coconut tree. The nut, when broken, reveals a white hard edible flesh that is used in cooking in various forms (it isn't very good for your cholestrol though). If broken when it is young the flesh inside is soft and the nut is full of coconut water - a refreshing drink that is much sought after in the scorching heat. The beaches of the south all have a vendor or two with a cart full of tender coconuts - a hole is made after you've paid up and a straw inserted and your drink is ready. Done with the drink? Return to the cart and the guy will cut open the nut for you and hand you a plastic spoon - the tender flesh inside makes for a quick snack.
Here is what wiki has to say: The name for the coconut palm in Sanskrit is kalpa vriksha, which translates as "the tree which provides all the necessities of life". In Malay, the coconut is known as pokok seribu guna, "the tree of a thousand uses". In the Philippines, the coconut is commonly given the title "Tree of Life". That probably explains why the coconut found its way into every home in southern india in older times.