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Coconut Palm Trees
Coconut Palms (Cocos nucifera)
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Arecales
Family: Arecaceae
Subfamily: Arecoideae
Tribe: Cocoeae
Genus: Cocos
Species: C. nucifera
Binomial name
Cocos nucifera
Coconut germinating on Black Sand Beach, Island of Hawaii

The Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the Family Arecaceae (palm family). It is the only species in the genus Cocos, and is a large palm, growing to 30 m tall, with pinnate leaves 4-6 m long, pinnae 60-90 cm long; old leaves break away cleanly leaving the trunk smooth. The term coconut refers to the fruit of the coconut palm. An alternate spelling is cocoanut.

The coconut palm is grown throughout the tropical world, for decoration as well as for its many culinary and non-culinary uses; virtually every part of the coconut palm has some human uses.

Origins and cultivation

The coconut tree.

The origins of this plant are the subject of controversy, with most authorities claiming it is native to South Asia (particularly the Ganges Delta), while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small, coconut-like plants grew there as long as 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, (India) and the oldest known so far in Khulna, Bangladesh. Regardless of its origin, the coconut has spread across much of the tropics, probably aided in many cases by sea-faring peoples. The fruit is light and buoyant and presumably spread significant distances by marine currents. Fruits collected from the sea as far north as Norway have been found to be viable (and subsequently germinated under the right conditions). In the Hawaiian Islands, the coconut is regarded as a Polynesian introduction, first brought to the islands by early Polynesian voyagers from their homelands in the South Pacific. They are now ubiquitous to most of the planet between 26ºN and 26ºS. The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (1,500 to 2,500 mm annually), which makes colonizing shorelines of the tropics relatively straightforward. Coconuts also need high humidity (70–80%+) for optimum growth, which is why they are rarely seen in areas with low humidity, like the Mediterranean, even where temperatures are high enough (regularly above 24°C). They are very hard to establish in dry climates and cannot grow there without frequent irrigation; in drought conditions, the new leaves do not open well, and older leaves may become desiccated; fruit also tends to be shed. They may grow but not fruit properly in areas where there is not sufficient warmth, like Bermuda.

Coconut and copra output in 2005
A man climbing a palm to harvest coconuts. Behind the palm a young plant is visible.

Coconut palms require warm conditions for successful growth, and are intolerant of cold weather. Optimum growth is with a mean annual temperature of 27°C(80.6°F), and growth is reduced below 21°C(69.8°F). Some seasonal variation is tolerated, with good growth where mean summer temperatures are between 28–37 °C (82.4-98.6 °F), and survival as long as winter temperatures are above 4–12 °C (39.2-53.6 °F); they will survive brief drops to 0 °C(32°F). Severe frost is usually fatal, although they have been known to recover from temperatures of -4 °C(24.8°F).

The flowers of the coconut palm are polygamomonoecious, with both male and female flowers in the same inflorescence. Flowering occurs continuously, with female flowers producing seeds. Coconut palms are believed to be largely cross- pollinated, although some dwarf varieties are self-pollinating.

Pests and diseases

Coconuts are susceptible to the phytoplasma disease lethal yellowing. One recently selected cultivar, 'Maypan', has been bred for resistance to this disease. The fruit may also be damaged by eriophyid mites. The coconut is also used as a food plant by the larvae of many Lepidoptera ( butterfly and moth) species, including the following Batrachedra spp: B. arenosella, B. atriloqua (feeds exclusively on Cocos nucifera), B. mathesoni (feeds exclusively on Cocos nucifera), and B. nuciferae.

Brontispa longissima (the "Coconut leaf beetle") feeds on young leaves and damages seedlings and mature coconut palms. On September 27, 2007, Philippines' Metro Manila and 26 provinces were quarantined due to having been infested with this pest (to save the $800-million Philippine coconut industry).

Growing in the United States

The only two states in the U.S. where coconut palms can be grown and reproduced outdoors without irrigation are Hawaii and Florida. Coconut palms will grow from Bradenton southwards on Florida's west coast and Melbourne southwards on Florida's east coast. The occasional coconut palm is seen north of these areas in favoured microclimates in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area and around Cape Canaveral. They may likewise be grown in favoured microclimates in the Rio Grande Valley area of Deep South Texas near Brownsville and on Galveston Island. They may reach fruiting maturity, but are damaged or killed by the occasional winter freezes in these areas. While coconut palms flourish in south Florida, unusually bitter cold snaps can kill or injure coconut palms there as well. Only the Florida Keys and the coastlines provide safe havens from the cold as far as growing coconut palms on the U.S. mainland.

The farthest north in the United States a coconut palm has been known to grow outdoors is in Newport Beach, California along the Pacific Coast Highway. In order for coconut palms to survive in Southern California they need sandy soil and minimal water in the winter to prevent root rot, and would benefit from root heating coils.

Coconut production in the Middle East

The main coconut producing area in the Middle East is the Dhofar region of Oman. Particular the area around Salalah maintains large coconut plantations similar to those found across the Arabian Sea.The large coconut grooves of Dhofar are already mentioned by the medieval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta in his writings known as Al Rihla .This is possible due to an annual rainy season known locally as Khareef.Coconut are also increasingly grown for decorative purposes along the coasts of UAE and Saudi Arabia with the help of irrigation. The UAE has however imposed strict laws on mature coconut tree imports from other countries to reduce the spreading of pests that can spread to other native palm trees such as the date palm .


Indonesia is the world leader in coconut production followed closely by the exponentially increasing product of the Philippines. Then, in a distant third India.

Top Ten Coconut Producers — 2005
Country Production (Int $1000) Footnote Production (MT) Footnote
 Indonesia 1,474,172 C 16,300,000 F
 Philippines 1,311,380 C 14,500,000 F
 India 859,180 C 9,500,000 F
 Brazil 274,380 C 3,033,830
 Sri Lanka 176,358 C 1,950,000 F
 Thailand 135,660 C 1,500,000 F
 Mexico 86,732 C 959,000 F
 Vietnam 85,014 C 940,000 F
 Malaysia 64,212 C 710,000 F
 Papua New Guinea 58,786 C 650,000 F
No symbol = official figure, F = FAO estimate, * = Unofficial figure, C = Calculated figure;

Production in Int $1000 have been calculated based on 1999-2001 international prices
Source: Food And Agricultural Organization of United Nations: Economic And Social Department: The Statistical Devision

The fruit

Coconut, meat, raw
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 1,481 kJ (354 kcal)
Carbohydrates 15.23 g
- Sugars 6.23 g
- Dietary fibre 9.0 g
Fat 33.49 g
- saturated 29.70 g
- monounsaturated 1.43 g
- polyunsaturated 0.37 g
Protein 3.3 g
Thiamine (vit. B1) 0.066 mg (6%)
Riboflavin (vit. B2) 0.02 mg (2%)
Niacin (vit. B3) 0.54 mg (4%)
Pantothenic acid (B5) 0.300 mg (6%)
Vitamin B6 0.054 mg (4%)
Folate (vit. B9) 26 μg (7%)
Vitamin C 3.3 mg (4%)
Calcium 14 mg (1%)
Iron 2.43 mg (19%)
Magnesium 32 mg (9%)
Phosphorus 113 mg (16%)
Potassium 356 mg (8%)
Zinc 1.1 mg (12%)
Percentages are relative to
US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Illustration of a coconut tree

Botanically, a coconut is a simple dry nut known as a fibrous drupe. The husk, or mesocarp, is composed of fibres called coir and there is an inner stone, or endocarp. The endocarp is the hardest part. This hard endocarp, the outside of the coconut as sold in the shops of non-tropical countries, has three germination pores that are clearly visible on the outside surface once the husk is removed. It is through one of these that the radicle emerges when the embryo germinates. Adhering to the inside wall of the endocarp is the testa, with a thick albuminous endosperm (the coconut "meat"), the white and fleshy edible part of the seed.

Although coconut meat contains less fat than other dry nuts such as peanuts and almonds, it is noted for its high amount of saturated fat. Approximately 90% of the fat found in coconut meat is saturated, a proportion exceeding that of foods such as lard, butter, and tallow. However, there has been some debate as to whether or not the saturated fat in coconuts is healthier than the saturated fat found in other foods (see coconut oil for more information). Coconut meat also contains less sugar and more protein than popular fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges, and it is relatively high in minerals such as iron, phosphorus and zinc.

The endosperm surrounds a hollow interior space, filled with air and often a liquid referred to as coconut water, not to be confused with coconut milk. Coconut milk, called "santan" in Malay, is made by grating the endosperm and mixing it with (warm) water. The resulting thick, white liquid is used in much Asian cooking, for example, in curries. Coconut water from the unripe coconut, however, can be drunk fresh. Young coconuts used for coconut water are called tender coconuts. The water of a tender coconut is liquid endosperm. It is sweet (mild) with aerated feel when cut fresh. Depending on the size a tender coconut could contain the liquid in the range of 300 to 1,000 ml. It is known in Tamil/Malayalam/Kannada as "elaneer".

When viewed on end, the endocarp and germination pores give the fruit the appearance of a coco (also Côca), a Portuguese word for a scary witch from Portuguese folklore, that used to be represented as a carved vegetable lantern, hence the name of the fruit. The specific name nucifera is Latin for nut-bearing.

When the coconut is still green, the endosperm inside is thin and tender, often eaten as a snack. But the main reason to pick the nut at this stage is to drink its water; a big nut contains up to one liter.

A mature coconut's interior

The meat in a young coconut is softer and more like gelatin than a mature coconut, so much so, that it is sometimes known as coconut jelly. When the nut has ripened and the outer husk has turned brown, a few months later, it will fall from the palm of its own accord. At that time the endosperm has thickened and hardened, while the coconut water has become somewhat bitter.

Coconuts sundried in Kozhikode, Kerala for making copra, which is used for making coconut oil

When the nut is still green the husk is very hard, but green nuts only fall if they have been attacked by moulds, etc. By the time the nut naturally falls, the husk has become brown, the coir has become drier and softer, and the nut is less likely to cause damage when it drops. Still, there have been instances of coconuts falling from palms and injuring people, and claims of some fatalities. This was the subject of a paper published in 1984 that won the Ig Nobel Prize in 2001. Falling coconut deaths are often used as a comparison to shark attacks; the claim is often made that a person is more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark. However, there is no evidence of people being killed in this manner. However William Wyatt Gill, an early LMS missionary on Mangaia recorded a story in which Kaiara, the concubine of King Tetui, was killed by a falling green nut. The offending palm was immediately cut down. This was around 1777, the time of Captain Cook's visit.

In some parts of the world, trained pig-tailed macaques are used to harvest coconuts. Training schools for pig-tailed macaques still exist both in southern Thailand and in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Competitions are held each year to find the fastest harvester.

The shell

Coconut shell compound

(dry basis)

Compound Percent
Cellulose 33.61
Lignin 36.51
Pentosans 29.27
Ash 0.61
Source: Jasper Guy Woodroof (1979). "Coconuts: Production, Processing, Products". 2nd ed. AVI Publishing Co. Inc.

Coconut shell ash compound
Compound Percent
K2O 45.01
Na2O 15.42
CaO 6.26
MgO 1.32
Fe2O3 + Al2O3 1.39
P2O5 4.64
SO3 5.75
SiO2 4.64
Source: Jasper Guy Woodroof (1979). "Coconuts: Production, Processing, Products". 2nd ed. AVI Publishing Co. Inc.

The roots

The palm has no tap root nor does it have root hairs. Instead, the palm has a fibrous root system .


Nearly all parts of the coconut palm are useful, and the palms have a comparatively high yield, up to 75 fruits per year; it therefore has significant economic value. 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". It its theorised that if you were to become stranded on a desert island populated by palm trees, you could survive purely on the tree and coconut alone, as the coconut provides all of the required natural properties for survival.

Coconut in market
Sold on a street at Guntur, India
Green Coconut Vendor in Delhi, India in Summer
A relatively young coconut which has been served in a hawker centre in Singapore with a straw with which to drink its coconut water.

Uses of the various parts of the palm include:


  • The white, fleshy part of the seed is edible and used fresh or dried in cooking.
  • Sport fruits are also harvested, primarily in the Philippines, where they are known as macapuno. They are sold in jars as "gelatinous mutant coconut" cut into balls or strands.
  • The cavity is filled with coconut water which contains sugar, fibre, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Coconut water provides an isotonic electrolyte balance, and is a highly nutritious food source. It is used as a refreshing drink throughout the humid tropics and is also used in isotonic sports drinks. It can also be used to make the gelatinous dessert nata de coco. Mature fruits have significantly less liquid than young immature coconuts; barring spoilage, coconut water is sterile until opened.
  • Coconut milk is made by processing grated coconut with hot water or milk, which extracts the oil and aromatic compounds. It should not be confused with the coconut water discussed above, and has a fat content of approximately 17%. When refrigerated and left to set, coconut cream will rise to the top and separate out the milk. The milk is used to produce virgin coconut oil by controlled heating and removing the oil fraction. Virgin coconut oil is found superior to the oil extracted from copra for cosmetic purposes.
  • The leftover fibre from coconut milk production is used as livestock feed.
  • The smell of coconuts comes from the 6-pentyloxan-2-one molecule, known as delta-decalactone in the food and fragrance industry.
  • The sap derived from incising the flower clusters of the coconut is fermented to produce palm wine, also known as "toddy" or, in the Philippines, tuba. The sap can also be reduced by boiling to create a sweet syrup or candy.
  • Apical buds of adult plants are edible and are known as "palm-cabbage" or heart-of-palm. It is considered a rare delicacy, as the act of harvesting the bud kills the palm. Hearts of palm are eaten in salads, sometimes called "millionaire's salad".
  • Ruku Raa is an extract from the young bud, a very rare type of nectar collected and used as morning break drink in the islands of Maldives reputed for its energetic power keeping the "raamen" (nectar collector) healthy and fit even over 80 and 90 years old. And by-products are sweet honey-like syrup and creamy sugar for desserts.
  • Newly germinated coconuts contain an edible fluff of marshmallow-like consistency called coconut sprout, produced as the endosperm nourishes the developing embryo.
  • In the Philippines, rice is wrapped in coco leaves for cooking and subsequent storage - these packets are called puso.
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