Though the origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is unknown, it is one of the most recognizable members of the palm family. The towering plant grows along beaches and coastal regions in tropical and subtropical climates, and because of this, the coconut tree has become a well-known icon of the tropics.
The coconut tree boasts a single trunk, from which a wide crown of palm leaves appears. The tree varies in height, depending on the cultivar; it can reach heights of between 50 and 80 feet (and sometimes even larger). The tremendous green leaves may be as long as 17 feet, complete with narrow leaflets that may be 4 to 6 inches long. The palm produces long spikes of creamy white flowers and of course, coconut fruits.
The fruit of the coconut tree fittingly gives the palm its common name. "Cocos" is the Portuguese word for monkey, in reference to the fact that the round brown fruit resembles a monkey face. Coconuts contain thick, white, protein-rich "meat," which is often dried and shredded for use in candies and baking, though it is not naturally very sweet. The husk of the coconut fruit is made up of fibers called coir, which can be woven into a variety of useful goods such as ropes and rugs.
Thanks to the presence of fossilized coconuts in New Zealand and reports of coconut usage dating back to 4,000 years ago in India, experts believe that the coconut tree originated somewhere in the West Pacific and Indian Ocean islands. The tree spreads by dropping its fruit into the sand, where it is washed away to other shores by the sea. The pan-tropical species grows best in humid, coastal areas. In the United States, the coconut palm will grow in frost-free areas in USDA zones 10 and 11.
Palm trees require well-drained, sandy soils and bright, sunny locations to thrive. The drought-tolerant plants have a high tolerance of saline, which is why they thrive on coastal shores. The plant can tolerate only extremely brief frosts, and even then the tree's foliage may suffer long-term damage. Coconut trees are grown as tropical accents and shade trees in resorts and in homes with plenty of space. There is some danger from the falling fruits, which injure or kill a small number of people every year.
A disease known as Lethal Yellowing is a continuing problem for the coconut palm. Lethal Yellowing is caused by a virus-like phytoplasma that lives in the crown of the tree. The coconut palm's leaves turn yellow before the entire plant dies from the infestation. There is no known cure for the problem, though antibiotics will keep the tree alive indefinitely. Disease-resistant coconut palms tend to be of the smaller varieties.