It's been called the 'tree of life'. The coconut palm (cocos nucifera, to give it its botanical name) is an evocative symbol of tropical paradise. But it's also a healthy source of vitamins, minerals and other trace elements, useful for juice and fruit (and for making coconut milk and cream) and also for housing, making food utensils, even jewellery and mats.

Every part of the tree serves some useful purpose. Flowering usually twice a year, the palm's beautiful creamy-white flowers send out small nodules which develop into nuts - sometimes up to 100kg of nuts per tree. When they have reached about 25cm in length and have a smooth green skin, they may be ready to pick.

At the young, green stage, the flesh is sweet and jelly-like and the juice is clear and refreshing. It contains lauric acid which, contrary to popular belief, is not high in cholesterol but very nutritious. The juice is also perfectly sterile until exposed to the air as the plant has an amazing filter system for removing impurities taken up through the soil.

As the fruit matures, the nut inside will form a rough, brown, fibrous husk (commercially used as coir). At this point, the nuts may fall from the tree. Inside, there is less juice but firmer white flesh which can be grated, soaked, squeezed and then passed through a sieve to make coconut cream. A second 'squeeze' will produce coconut milk.

To extract the firm coconut flesh from a hard husk, place the coconut in the freezer for half an hour in a plastic bag. The white 'bowl' of flesh will come away from the husk. You can then grate it in a blender if you don't have a special coconut scraper. Left on the tree, the nut will start to sprout - the inside producing a soft, spongy 'apple' which is full of coconut oil and quite unusual in taste.

Coconut harvesters work year round in Port Douglas to remove ripe and sprouting nuts from trees before they fall onto the heads of passers-by. The coconut palm is referred to in Sinhalese as a gift of the gods. Every part of the tree is used - in building, for utensils, right down to the milk, the oil and of course the flesh.

Finely grated in sambols and mallungs, added to curries and baked into sweet delights, it is the quintessential Sri Lankan ingredient. Mauritians use finely grated coconut combined with mint, dried chilli and garlic for a refreshing chutney.