2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Food and agriculture; Plants

Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)
Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Arecales
Family: Arecaceae
Genus: Cocos
Species: C. nucifera
Binomial name
Cocos nucifera

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.

Origins and cultivation

A man climbing a tree to harvest coconuts. Behind the tree a young plant is visible
A man climbing a tree to harvest coconuts. Behind the tree a young plant is visible

The origins of this plant are the subject of controversy with some authorities claiming it is native to southeast Asia, while others claim its origin is in northwestern South America. Fossil records from New Zealand indicate that small, coconut-like plants grew there as far back 15 million years ago. Even older fossils have been uncovered in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, India. 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 (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.

The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (750 to 2,000 mm annually), which makes colonising 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 (e.g. the Mediterranean), even where temperatures are high enough (regularly above 24°C). They are very hard to establish and grow in dry climates without frequent irrigation. The only two states in the U.S. where coconut palms can be grown and reproduce outdoors without irrigation are Hawaii and Florida. The farthest north a coconut palm has been known to grow outdoors is in Newport Beach, California along the Pacific Coast Highway. In order for coconut palm to survive in Southern California they need sandy soil, minimal water in the winter to prevent root rot and would benefit from root heating coils.

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 affected by eriophyid mites, at Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India.
Coconuts affected by eriophyid mites, at Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India.

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 fruit

Maturing Coconuts on the tree
Maturing Coconuts on the tree

Botanically, a coconut is a simple dry fruit known as a fibrous drupe (not a true nut). The husk ( mesocarp) is composed of fibres called coir and there is an inner "stone" (the endocarp). 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. 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 is made by grating the endocarp and mixing it with (warm) water. This produces a thick, white liquid called coconut milk that is used in much Asian cooking, for example, in curries. Coconut water from the unripe coconut, on the other hand, is drunk fresh as a refreshing drink.

When viewed on end, the endocarp and germination pores resemble the face of a monkey, the Portuguese word for which is macaco, sometimes abbreviated to coco, 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, a favourite snack. But the main reason to pick the nut at that stage is to drink its water; a big nut contains up to one litre of refreshing drink. When the nut has ripened and the outer husk has turned brown, a couple of months later, it will fall from the tree of its own accord. At that time the endosperm has thickened and hardened, while the coconut water has become somewhat bitter.

Coconut flower. Location: Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India.
Coconut flower. Location: Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India.

To open a coconut, remove the outer husk (if not purchased already removed) and pierce two of the three eyes of the fruit (one for the juice to come out of, one to enable air to go in); drain the juice from the fruit. Since coconuts have a naturally-forming fracture point, they can be opened by taking a heavy knife, such as a meat cleaver, and striking the coconut with the flat edge of the knife. Or you can use a flat-bladed screwdriver and a hammer (which is easier, and may be safer than using a cleaver). After inserting the screwdriver slightly, twist it to crack the shell. The coconut should then be turned, and this process repeated until there is a contiguous crack in the shell around the entire fruit. Afterwards, the fruit can be separated at this fracture point.

When the nut is still green the husk is very hard, but green nuts rarely fall, only when they have been attacked by moulds, etc. By the time the nut naturally falls, the husk has become brown, the coir has become dryer and softer, and the nut is less likely to cause damage when it drops. Still, there have been instances of coconuts falling from trees 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, making the claim that it is more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark. 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 tree 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 in southern Thailand and in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Competitions are held each year to discover the fastest harvester.


A Coconut that has been cracked open, showing the composition of the shell, seed, and the cavity inside
A Coconut that has been cracked open, showing the composition of the shell, seed, and the cavity inside
A relatively young coconut which has been served in a hawker centre in Singapore with a straw with which to drink its water.
A relatively young coconut which has been served in a hawker centre in Singapore with a straw with which to drink its water.
Extracting the fibre from the husk (Sri Lanka)
Extracting the fibre from the husk (Sri Lanka)
fresh coconut
fresh coconut

All parts of the coconut palm are useful, and the trees 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".

Uses of the various parts of the palm include:

Culinary uses

  • The white, fleshy part of the seed is edible and used fresh or dried in cooking.
  • The cavity is filled with " coconut water" containing sugars, fibre, proteins, anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals, which provide excellent isotonic electrolyte balance, and an exceptional nutritional food source, which is why it is used as a refreshing drink throughout the humid tropics. It is also used in the making of the gelatinous dessert nata de coco. Mature fruits have significantly less liquid than young immature coconuts. Coconut water is sterile until the coconut is opened (unless the coconut is spoiled).
  • Sport fruits are also harvested, primarily in the Philippines, where they are known as macapuno.
  • Coconut milk (which is approximately 17% fat) is made by processing grated coconut with hot water or hot milk which extracts the oil and aromatic compounds from the fibre, and should not be confused with the juice found naturally in young coconuts, called coconut water or coconut juice.
  • Coconut cream is what rises to the top when coconut milk is refrigerated and left to set.
  • The leftover fibre from coconut milk production is used as livestock feed.
  • 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" (though harvest of this kills the tree).
  • The interior of the growing tip may be harvested as heart-of-palm and is considered a rare delicacy. Harvesting this also kills the tree. Hearts of palm are often eaten in salads; such a salad is sometimes called "millionaire's salad".
  • Newly germinated coconuts contain an edible fluff of marshmallow-like consistency called coconut sprout, produced as the endosperm nourishes the developing embryo.

Non-culinary uses

  • Coconut water can be used as an intravenous fluid (see PMID 10674546).
  • The coir (the fibre from the husk of the coconut) is used in ropes, mats, brushes, caulking boats and as stuffing fibre; it is also used extensively in horticulture for making potting compost.
  • Copra is the dried meat of the seed which is the source of coconut oil.
  • The leaves provide materials for baskets and roofing thatch.
  • Palmwood comes from the trunk and is increasingly being used as an ecologically-sound substitute for endangered hardwoods. It has several applications, particularly in furniture and specialized construction (notably in Manila's Coconut Palace).
  • Hawaiians hollowed the trunk to form a drum, a container, or even small canoes.
  • The husk and shells can be used for fuel and are a good source of charcoal.
  • Shells with husks are also used in the Philippines as floor shiners, known as bunot.
  • Dried half coconut shells are used to buff floors.
  • Shirt buttons can be carved out of dried coconut shell. Coconut buttons are often used for Hawaiian Aloha shirts.
  • The stiff leaflet midribs make cooking skewers, kindling arrows, or bound into bundles, brooms and brushes.
  • The roots are used as a dye, a mouthwash, or a medicine for dysentery. A frayed-out piece of root makes a poor man's toothbrush.
  • Half coconut shells are used in theatre, banged together to create the sound effect of a horse's hoofbeats. They were used in this way in the Monty Python film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  • Half coconut shells may be deployed as an improvised bra, especially for comedic effect or theatrical purposes. They were used in this way in the 1970s UK sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mum for example.
  • In fairgrounds, a " coconut shy" is a popular target practice game, and coconuts are commonly given as prizes.
  • A coconut can be hollowed out and used as a home for a rodent or small bird.
  • Fresh inner coconut husk can also be rubbed on the lens of snorkling goggles to prevent fogging during use
  • Dried coconut leaves when burned into ash contains amounts of lime
  • Dried half coconut shells are used as the bodies of musical instruments, including the Chinese yehu and banhu, and the Vietnamese đàn gáo.
  • Coconut is also commonly used as a herbal remedy in Pakistan to treat bites from rats.
  • The "branches" (leaf petioles) are whippy (strong and flexible) enough to make a redouted switch, the traditional use of which in tribal justice was for instance revived by referendum among the Gilbertese community on Choiseul ( Solomon islands) in 2005 CorPun.
  • Coconut seedlings are popular novelty houseplants.
  • The leaves can be woven (by weaving opposing leaves into each other) to create effective roofing materials, or Reed Mats.

World history

  • In World War II, coastwatcher scout Biuki Gasa was the first of two from the Solomon Islands to reach the shipwrecked John F. Kennedy and the wounded and exhausted crew of his PT-109. He would suggest for lack of paper, delivering a message inscribed on a husked coconut shell by dugout canoe. This coconut was later kept on the president's desk, and is now in the John F. Kennedy Library.

Cultural aspects

A young coconut palm
A young coconut palm

Coconuts are extensively used in Hindu religious rites. Coconuts are usually offered to the gods, and a coconut is smashed on the ground or on some object as part of an initiation or inauguration of building projects, facility, ship, etc.; this act signifies sacrificing ego, that wealth stems from divinity, and if due credit is not given, bad karma is taken on. In Hindu mythology it is referred as Kalpavruksha. In Hindu mythologies it is said that Kalapavruksha gives what is asked for.

  • The Indonesian tale of Hainuwele tells a story of the introduction of coconuts to Seram.
  • The people of the state of Kerala in southern India consider Kerala to be the "Land of Coconuts", in the native language the phrase is nalikerathinte nattil.
  • The word "coconut" is also used as a mild derogatory slang word referring to a person of Latino, Filipino, or Indian subcontinent descent who emulates a white person (brown on the outside, white on the inside).
  • "Coconut" is Australian slang for a Tongan, or other person of "Polynesian" descent, although usually not Maori.
  • " Coconut" is also the title of a song by Harry Nilsson.
  • "Coconut" is also the title of an In Reverie b-side track by Saves the Day.
  • "Coconut" is also used as a slang term for breasts.
  • The word Coconut is used in the song by The Strokes called Ask Me Anything
  • Kid Creole's backing singers were known as his Coconuts


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