Coconut is one of the world's most important and versatile plants and it is believed to originate from the geographic region extending from the Philippines, through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, to northern Australia. Nowadays, it is widely cultivated and has become naturalised in most all, if not all, tropical countries worldwide.
In its natural form, it is a medium-sized to tall palm, typically 10 to 25 m (30 to 82 ft) tall, though occasionally reaches heights of up to 35 m (115 ft).
It develops a slender trunk, normally straight but sometimes curved by wind, with smooth ringed grey bark and a rounded crown made up of very large feathery leaves, each up to 5 m (16 ft) long. The two main forms are the tall and dwarf, with the dwarf variety reaching only 10 to 15 m (30 to 50 ft) tall.
The flowers are small, pale yellow and are borne on large, branched flower stalks, with female and male flowers on separate branches of the same stalk. Coconut palms bloom all the year round, except when they are stressed by cold or a lack water, as is common in areas with a pronounced dry season.
The fruit are egg-shaped, large and heavy, with a thick, tough, fibrous exterior enclosing the nut, which is round with a hard shell that protects the flesh and water. The fruit develop from the fertilised female flowers, growing in clusters at the top of the palm. When young they are green or yellow-orange in dwarf varieties, becoming brown when mature at around nine to ten months after fruit-set, then self-detach and fall to the ground where they land with a thud.
The immature fruit contains coconut water, which is a sweet, refreshing and nutritious drink. The water is accessed by boring or cutting open a hole through the fibrous exterior and hard inner shell. After draining or drinking the water, the young coconut is split open to access the immature jelly-like flesh, which is then usually scooped out and eaten fresh.
As the coconut matures on the palm the immature flesh hardens and its oil content increases. At the same time, the dry matter content of the water decreases, along with its nutritional value.
The flesh of the mature nut yields coconut cream and milk, which is widely used in savoury and sweet dishes, including curries, rice dishes, custards, confectionery, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. To make the cream or milk the finely shredded or grated flesh is mixed with water then pressed and strained. The first-pressing yields the cream and subsequent pressings the milk.
The mature flesh also yields up to 65% of an edible oil, which starts to solidify at temperatures below 25 °C. The oil is extracted by cold pressing the mature, dried flesh or by boiling the milk and skimming off the oil, which is the more traditional or home-based method.
Coconut oil is used mostly for cooking, particularly frying. It has also been successfully tested as a bio-diesel. The leftover seed-cake is reported to have a protein content of about 20% and a residual oil content of about 6%. It is a common ingredient in commercial livestock feeds, including some fish feeds.
Coconut flour, a high fibre, high protein flour, suitable for baking and cooking is made by finely grinding the white part of the dried mature flesh after the milk or oil is extracted. Desiccated coconut, made by shredding the white part of the dried flesh and coconut chips, made by thinly slicing the dried flesh, are used to add flavour and texture to baked goods and confectionery.
Coconut extract or essence, a coconut flavouring, is made by soaking the thoroughly dried grated or diced flesh in an unflavoured colourless alcohol, such as vodka, for at least four weeks (preferably in a sealed glass jar shaken once a day and stored away from sunlight). It can be kept over a long period and is used to add a coconut flavour to food, particularly to baked goods and drinks. It is found for sale in supermarkets, usually in the baking products section.
Sap collected by tapping the flower-stalk, after it is cut, is slowly boiled and reduced into palm sugar or is naturally fermented to produce Toddy, an alcoholic beverage as well as being made into coconut vinegar.
The flowers are a major source of nectar and pollen, providing honeybees with year-round forage in many areas and almost continuous honey production for beekeepers. The honey is described as white to colourless when pure or greenish-yellow when adulterated, thin, with a pleasant flavour and starts to granulate after around three months. Yields vary considerably, with the highest yields coming from coastal areas, where yields of up to 80 kgs (176 lbs) per colony per season have been reported.
In Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia, the sap from the inflorescence, and in some areas the nectar from the flowers is fermented and distilled to make 'Arrack', an alcoholic spirit sold under different brands in the region.
Activated charcoal, a speciality charcoal used in air filtration systems and the precious metals industry is made from the hard brown shell of mature nuts after the flesh has been removed. The shell is also cut, shaped and polished into pieces of wearable jewellery and other artisan craft.
Coir, a natural fibre stripped from the husk has long been woven to make rope, cordage and mats, including doormats, as well as being a choice ingredient in potting mixes for plants such as orchids that require a light, quick-draining root mix. Pieces of husk not made into coir are used as mulch, sometimes as a growing medium, such as when growing Anthuriums (Anthurium andraeanum) for cut-flowers. The husk can also be shaped into a floor-polishing brush and is widely used as kindling for starting fires.
The trunk produces a lightweight to heavy wood, in the 100 to 900 kgs per cubic meter range but is low in natural resistance to decay and rot, which limits its use outdoors. The outer portion of the bottom 6 m (20 ft) of the stem, which has the highest density wood, is sawn into planks used mostly for interior flooring, usually laid in a parquet pattern. The finished wood is brown to dark brown with a decorative grain, wears well and takes on a good polish.
The leaves are used in basketry and other weaving craft, including making them into woven sun hats, floor mats, privacy screens and packaging for food and gifts.
Coconut is commonly planted as a windbreak and to help minimise soil and sand erosion in coastal areas, as well as for its graceful, iconic form, which contributes to the tropical feel of any garden or landscape.
The oil extracted from the flesh of mature nuts is a good source of energy. It is also reported to contain good amounts of Vitamins B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B6 (Pyridoxine), C (Ascorbic acid) and E, as well as Folate, Iron and Phosphorus.
Coconut oil is widely used in beauty and skincare products, particularly soaps, shampoos, skin creams and moisturisers. It is also used as a massage oil and as a hair tonic, particularly in India and Southeast Asia.
Coconut water, from the young fruit, is taken as a kidney tonic in the Caribbean and is prescribed in traditional medicine in India for the treatment of urinary problems. It is reported to contain a high amount of Potassium, up to 3 grams per litre or close to 100% of the daily recommended intake for adults.
Grows and fruits naturally in humid tropical lowland climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 4000 mm and a dry season of 5 months or less.
Coconut palms flower and fruit poorly or not at all in areas with cool winters and are more susceptible to disease in dry, sub-humid or very humid climates, generally areas with annual rainfall outside of the 1200 to 4000 mm range, or with a pronounced dry season.
However, it is productive in areas with a pronounced dry season if the roots have access groundwater, such as in parts of Mumbai, in India. And, it does equally well in areas with annual rainfall below 1200 mm if irrigated, such as in Salalah in Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India, which receives only 600 mm of rainfall annually.
New plants are started from seed, usually by planting mature nuts which have fallen to the ground and sprouted.
It performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 and on sites with full sun exposure. It has good tolerance to wind, salt spray, soil salt and periodic flooding but is intolerant of slow-draining or waterlogged soils.
Coconut palms starting flowering and producing coconuts when around three to four years old and a mature coconut palm can produce up to one hundred coconuts per year. Yields start to decline when the palm is over thirty-five years old.
Both the young and mature fruit are buoyant, helped by their fibrous, waterproof husk and by air trapped in the nut cavity. This enables their dispersal over long sea distances to new shores where they may eventually become established. However, this type of dispersal is limited to coastal areas and it requires human intervention for dispersal into inland areas.
It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA) but is discouraged from planting in South Florida.
The large, heavy nuts fall to the ground, sometimes from a great height and can cause serious personal injury or damage to property.
Pollen released by male flowers is known to cause hay fever in some people.
Ash, M. & Ash, I. 2004, Handbook of green chemicals, 2nd ed., Synapse Information Resources, Endicott, New York
Blombery, A. M. & Rodd, A. N. 1992, An informative, practical guide to palms of the world : their cultivation, care and landscape use, (Revised edition), Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, New South Wales
Bradbear, N. 2009, Bees and their role in forest livelihoods : a guide to the services provided by bees and the sustainable harvesting, processing and marketing of their products, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome
Crane, E., Walker, P. & Day, R. 1984, Directory of important world honey sources, International Bee Research Association, London
Elevitch, C. R. & Thaman, R. R. 2011, Specialty crops for Pacific islands, 1st ed, Permanent Agriculture Resources, Hawaii
Fellows, P. 1997, Traditional foods : processing for profit, Intermediate Technology, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation, London
Francis, J. K. 1998, Tree species for planting in forest, rural, and urban areas of Puerto Rico, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Piedras, Puerto Rico
Francis, J. K. and Liogier, H. A. 1991, Naturalized exotic tree species in Puerto Rico, General technical report SO-82, USDA Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans
Gilbert, V., Smith, S. & Young, L. 2006, Foliage for florists, Society of Floristry, United Kingdom
Gilman, E. F. 1997, Trees for urban and suburban landscapes, Delmar Publishers, Albany, New York
Gunstone, F. D. 2011, Vegetable oils in food technology : composition, properties and uses, 2nd ed, Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, New Jersey
Howes, F. N. 1949, Vegetable gums and resins, Chronica Botanica Company, Waltham, Massachusetts
Jacquat, C. & Bertossa, G. 1990, Plants from the markets of Thailand : descriptions and uses of 241 wild and cultivated plants, with 341 colour photographs, Editions Duang Kamol, Bangkok
Jensen, M. 1999, Trees commonly cultivated in Southeast Asia : an illustrated field guide, 2nd ed., Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (RAP), Bangkok
Kochhar, S. L 1998, Economic botany in the tropics, 2nd ed, Macmillan India, Delhi
Lorenzi, H. 2002, Brazilian trees : a guide to the identification and cultivation of Brazilian native trees. Vol. 1, 4. ed, Instituto Plantarum de Estudos da Flora, Nova Odessa, São Paulo
McNab, J. M & Boorman, K. N 2002, Poultry feedstuffs supply, composition and nutritive value, CABI Publishing, Wallingford, United Kingdom
Mors, W. B & Rizzini, C. T. 1966, Useful plants of Brazil, Holden-Day Publishing, San Francisco, California
Norrington, L. & Campbell, C. 2001, Tropical food gardens : a guide to growing fruit, herbs and vegetables in tropical and sub-tropical climates, Bloomings Books, Hawthorn, Victoria
Parrotta, J. A. 2001, Healing plants of peninsular India, CABI Publishing, Wallingford, Oxfordshire
Perry, F. & Hay, R. 1982, A field guide to tropical and subtropical plants, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York
Purseglove, J. W. 1981, Tropical crops: Monocotyledons, Longman, Harlow, London
Randall, R. P. 2002, A global compendium of weeds, R.G. and F.J. Richardson Press, Melbourne
Reyes, G. 1992, Wood densities of tropical tree species, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans, Louisiana
Rosengarten, F. 1984, The book of edible nuts, Walker and Company Publishing, New York
Schubert, T. H. 1979, Trees for urban use in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans
Selvam, V. 2007, Trees and shrubs of the Maldives, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) RAP publication (Maldives), Thammada Press Company Ltd., Bangkok
Sonaiya, E. B. & Swan, S. E. 2004, Small-scale poultry production : technical guide, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome
Tacon, A. G. & Hasan, M. R. 2009, Feed ingredients and fertilizers for farmed aquatic animals : sources and composition, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome
Van Wyk, B. E. 2005, Food plants of the world: an illustrated guide, 1st ed., Timber Press, Portland, Oregon
Vozzo, J. A 2002, Tropical tree seed manual, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service, Washington D.C.
Bezona N., et al. 2009. Salt and wind tolerance of landscape plants for Hawaii (Landscape; L-13), University of Hawaii, Honolulu
Buddenhagen C.E., Chimera C. & Clifford P. 2009, Assessing Biofuel Crop Invasiveness: A Case Study, PLoS ONE 4
McCall W.W. 1980, The salt tolerance of plants, University of Hawaii (General Home Garden Series; GHGS-21), Honolulu
Morton, J.F. 1964, Honeybee Plants of South Florida, Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society, Vol 77:415-436.
National Research Council (Board on Science and Technology for International Development) 1990, Saline agriculture : salt-tolerant plants for developing countries, The National Academies Press, Washington D. C.
Percival, S. & Findley, B. 2007 (Reviewed April 2014), What's in Your Tropical Fruit?, Fact Sheet HN 0708, University of Florida IFAS Extension Service, Gainesville, Florida
Roddy, K. M., & Arita‑Tsutsumi, L. 1997, A History of Honey Bees in the Hawaiian Islands. Also called: Honey Bees in the Hawaiian Islands, University of Hawaii, Hilo
Watson, B.J., & Moncur, M. 1985, Guideline criteria for determining survival, commercial and best mean minimum July temperature for various tropical fruit in Australia (Southern Hemisphere), Department of Primary Industries Queensland (DPI QLD), Wet Tropics Regional Publication, Queensland
Wenkam N.S. & Miller C.D. 1965, Composition of Hawaii fruits (Bulletin 135), University of Hawaii, Honolulu
Wong M. 2006. Palms for Hawaii landscapes, (Landscape; L-19), University of Hawaii, Honolulu
This website is provided for general information only. Iplantz makes no statements, representations or warranties as to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this website and does not accept any liability to you or any other person for the information which is provided or referred to on this website.
In particular, Iplantz does not represent or warrant that any dataset or the data it contains is accurate, authentic or complete, or suitable for your needs. Changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact the accuracy of datasets and their contents.
To the maximum extent permitted by law, tIplantz accepts no liability whatsoever to any person arising from or connected with the use of or reliance on any information or advice provided on this website or incorporated into it by reference, including any dataset or data it contains. No responsibility is taken for any information or services that may appear on any linked websites.