The coconut palm, a tropical plant not tolerant of frost, grows outdoors in USDA hardiness Zones 10 and warmer. Having beauty in form and texture, the singular, oft-leaning trunk is topped by a feathery tuft of large fronds that is exquisite against a tropical sky. The wood, fibers and fruits of the coconut palm have played a central role in the life of Polynesian and southeast Asian cultures.
Scientists classify the coconut palm as an angiosperm, or flowering plant. It is a monocot, having only one seed leaf upon germination. It is a member of the palm family, Arececeae, and further organized into subfamily Arecoideae, tribe Cocoae, subtribe Butiinae. The botanical name for this palm is Cocos nucifera.
The coconut palm today is seen growing across all the tropical regions of the world. Ethnobotanists believe this palm originated in southeastern Asia, in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Ocean and wind currents spread the floating fruits to the islands of Melanesia and later further eastward across the Pacific Ocean. In like manner, coconut seeds floated westward to India and Ceylon and southward to northern Australia. Coconut seeds and plants have been spread to parts of Africa and tropical America since the 17th century, when commerce and shipping increased worldwide.
A single-trunked plant, the coconut palm will reach a mature height of between 80 and 100 feet, although after 40 years of age, a plant is typically 65 feet tall. The canopy, or tuft of leaves atop the trunk can be as wide as 26 to 30 feet in diameter.
The leaves, or fronds, of the coconut palm are between 10 and 20 feet long, and have stout, yellowy stems, or petioles. Each leaf comprises hundreds of leaflets that are 2 to 3 feet long and only 2 to 4 inches wide. The color of the frond overall varies depending on growing conditions and variety, but generally ranges from deep, dark green to an olive, yellow-green.
The flowering structure of a coconut palm is called an inflorescence, since it is a large, branched structure carrying thousands of tiny blossoms. It appears in the warm part of the growing season, emerging among the fronds in the canopy. Botanically, the inflorescence is dubbed a panicle. There are many branching stems on the panicle, each with hundreds of tiny male flowers but only two or three female flowers called buttons. All the blossoms are creamy white to palest yellow.
Fruits and Seeds
Once wind moves pollen from male flowers to the female buttons, the buttons begin developing into the large fruits we all recognize. When mature, a coconut is about 12 inches long and is three-sided, bright yellow to green or brownish. The fruit is botanically a fibrous drupe. It has a thin, hard skin; a thick layer of fibrous husk underneath; and a very hard shell that is chocolate brown in the center seed. When the seed is cracked open, the "coconut fruit" reveals a white kernel that is sweet and tasty, with a water-based liquid, known as "coconut milk."
Often called the "tree of life," the coconut palm serves many useful purposes as a food source, a building material and in the manufacture of hand-crafts. Undeniably, this palm is used as an ornamental plant, conveying a beautiful silhouette that is synonymous with warm, tropical landscapes.