If you take a tropical vacation and fail to see the romantic fronds and architectural beauty of a coconut palm, you might feel short-changed. This tall palm is now found growing across tropical areas the world over for ornamentation, food or to provide construction, tool or fiber materials. The fruit, the coconut, is encased in a three-sided fibrous husk that floats on the ocean surface and houses a sweet, watery milk and tasty white flesh.
The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is the only species in the botanical genera Cocos in the palm family, Arecaceae. It is a flowering plant, an angiosperm, but a monocot, which means it germinates from its seeds having only one leaf. Palms are further categorized into subfamilies and tribes; to the average person, palms have either fan-like palmate leaves or feather-like pinnate leaves. The coconut has pinnate leaves.
Growing from a single trunk that is either straight or picturesquely slanted or curved, the coconut palm can reach mature heights of 70 to 110 feet. The trunk is slightly wider or swollen at its base and is lined with rings that occur when leaves drop off and leave a scar. The feather-like frond, or leaf, is nearly 20 feet long with a yellow-green stem. It has hundreds of narrow leaflets that are waxy, smooth, fibrous and usually drooping. In summer's warmth, a branched cluster of tiny flowers appear at the fronds' base high in the canopy and are pollinated by wind.
The exact origin of this palm is obscure because the fruits are buoyant and are carried by ocean current. Moreover, transport of coconuts by explorers and trade ships in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries have distributed this palm across all tropical reaches of the Earth. Scientists agree the coconut palm is native to the frost-free southern Pacific region, but some insist the exact origin is in the southwestern Pacific Islands. Others believe, based on the presence of other closely related palm species, it is from northwestern South America.
Many cultivars, or cultivated varieties, of coconuts exist today. These cultivars are the result of human selection of desirable traits such as mature plant size, production of fruits or disease resistance. Lethal yellowing is a disease found across the tropics that has been known to decimate wild stands of coconut palm. Although all cultivars of this palm succumb to this disease, certain selections demonstrate acute resistance to lethal yellowing and are commonly grown, such as Maypan, Malayan Dwarf and Panama Tall.
Purdue University dubs the coconut palm as one of the 10 most important plants for mankind. Coconut palm's uses include construction material, human food, cloth and rope fibers, clothing, utensils and water vessel materials, among others. All parts of the palm gain usage in tropical cultures.
The palm itself carries great ornamental use around the world in frost-free landscapes. Young, sprouting palms in coconut seeds are enjoyed as houseplants when small, but they quickly grow to become too large and sun-requiring for long-term use indoors.