Coconut palms are members of the Arecaceae family and are monocots, which means the palms have one seed leaf on the embryo inside the seed. The coconut palm is native to Southeastern Asia but has been naturalized in the United States and the rest of world along beaches, near sea level, in warm climates. Although the coconut palm is grown for its coconuts, every part of the tree can be used by man.
The trunk of the coconut palm is slender, curved and branch free, except at the crown, or top of the tree. The base is swollen. New roots emerge from the base. The height of the typical coconut palm ranges from 50 to 80 feet, with a diameter of 12 to 20 inches. The trunk is marked horizontally with old leaf scars up to the crown, although the trunk becomes smoother as the palm ages.
The leaves of the coconut palm are called fronds. The fronds sit at the top of the tree. Each frond is six to 20 inches in length and four to six inches wide. The fronds are arching and evergreen and capable of withstanding strong coastal winds, including hurricanes. Older fronds turn yellow and drop off, unlike the growth pattern of other palms that keep their leaves. Coconut palm fronds are pinnately compound leaves with the leaflets radiating opposite from each other on a central branch, like a feather. There are 25 to 40 pairs of leaflets per frond. The leaflets are stiff, spear-shaped and pointed at the tip. The fronds are used for thatch.
The coconut is a drupe, a fruit with a soft center covered by an outer skin-like layer. The coconut contains a sweet liquid that is fleshy when ripe and a source of oil when dried. The fruit ranges from eight to 15 inches in width, with three sides. When young, the coconut is shiny and green, becoming brown and rigid and covered with long fibers. The seed inside is five to 10 inches wide and round. Coconuts hang from the crown of the palm in clusters. Each tree produces approximately 25 coconuts a year.
The flowers are small, either white, yellow-orange or light yellow, with lance-shaped petals and six stamens. They bloom in upright shoots at the base of the palm fronds. The flowers are three to five inches in length. The flowers are unisexual, with both male and females on the same branch. The males are at the top of the branch and females below. The flowers start blooming in the spring and may continue throughout the year.
The coconut palm is susceptible to coconut lethal yellowing disease, caused by a parasitic fungus that is spread by insects. Trees in Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific have not been affected. Trees in Florida, the Caribbean and in Africa have been destroyed. The disease presents first as coconut dieback; then the flowers begin to blacken, and then the fronds begin to yellow. The tree then decays and dies within a year. Use of antibiotics stems and cures the disease but is not practical for use on coconut plantations with several hundred trees. Disease-resistant trees are being developed.