Cocos nucifera L.
Coconut palm, coconut tree
Coconut palm evolved in the western Pacific region known as Malesia (the floristic region that includes the Malay Peninsula and archipelago, New Guinea, and the Bismarck Archipelago), and the southwest Pacific. It has proven so versatile that centuries of cultivation have spread it to tropical coasts throughout the world. In fact, the original species is no longer found in the wild, replaced by some of its most successful cultivars.
Plants: Trees are 60-80' (18-24 m), with trunks 16-24" (40-60 cm) around. Typically a nut produces a single trunk, rarely two, very rarely three. The trunks aren’t actually wood, but rather fibrous overlapping stems, and they curve, increasing springiness to better resist storms. They are light gray brown, ringed with many leaf scars.
Leaves: Leaves are 15-19' (4.6-5.8 m) long, on stems 3-4' (91-121 cm) in length. They are odd pinnate. Each leaf is composed of 150-180 leaflets. The leaflets, in turn, are flat, smooth-edged, and pointed, up to 3' (91 cm) × 1½" (3.8 cm).
Flowers: Flowers have two bracts, the largest of which resembles a canoe in shape. The flowers emerge from the “boat,” and are creamy white or yellow. There are a few large female flowers and many smaller male flowers. Coconut trees flower continuously.
Fruits: Fruits—technically drupes, not nuts—are about 12" (30 cm) long, resembling a football or giant acorn, and are green, yellow, or brown. They take 9-12 months to ripen.
Edibility: The “flesh” (endosperm), oil, and milk are popular parts of many diets of many. Once shunned for its fats, coconut oil’s medium chain fatty acids are now known not to raise cholesterol levels, and perhaps even to protect against heart disease. This immediately prompted its promotion as a health food, but this is a major stretch, since it has high calorie content and is high in saturated fats.
Medical: Recent medical studies have found that coconut can have antibacterial, antifungal, antihelmintic, and antiviral properties, among other health benefits. Many other medical benefits have been attributed to coconuts over the years, but few have been confirmed.
Hort.purdue.edu (Includes an extensive description of the nearly limitless ways in which coconut trees are used)
Cocos nucifera description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 25 May 2020.
Range: Zones 10-12: