Coconut Taxonomy

The Arecaceae or palm family is a large, distinct family of monocotyledonous plants, containing up to 4000 species distributed among 200+ genera. The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera L., is undoubtedly the most economically important plant in the family, as it is used as both an ornamental and a food crop.


Coconut palms have two natural subgroups simply referred to as “Tall” and “Dwarf”. Most commercial plantings use high yielding, longer lived Tall cultivars, and each region has its own selections, e.g., ‘Ceylon Tall’, Indian Tall’, ‘Jamaica Tall’ (syn. ‘Atlantic Tall’), ‘Panama Tall’ (syn. ‘Pacific Tall’). The Tall cultivar group is sometimes given the name Cocos nucifera var. typica, and the dwarf cultivar group C. nucifera var. nana.

Origin of the Cocos Nucifera, History of Cultivation

The origin of the coconut palm is obscured by the ability of the fruit to disseminate the species naturally over distances of thousands of miles. Coconuts can float on the ocean for months and still germinate when beached, so they may have arisen anywhere between the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans.

Prior to the age of discovery, coconuts were dispersed from east Africa to the Pacific coast of Panama. Coconuts provided the only source of food and water on many of the atolls across the equatorial Pacific, and the natural distribution of coconut may have influenced the initial colonization of the region. It is clear that there were no coconut palms along the east coast of the Americas, western Africa, or the Caribbean prior to European exploration in the sixteenth century.

Today, coconut is distributed pantropically, and even reaches extra-tropical areas such as southern Florida and the Bahamas. Coconut palms have been used since ancient times as a source of food, fiber, fuel, water, and shelter, and many of these uses are still important today. Coconut oil was one of the first, if not the first plant oil to be used by man, and was the leading vegetable oil until 1962 when eclipsed by soybean oil.

Unlike many tropical fruits, coconuts are still grown largely by small landholders instead of on large plantations, although plantations have become more popular recently.

World Coconut Production

Coconuts are produced in 92 countries worldwide on about 26 million acres. Average yield is 4457 lbs/acre.

Top 10 Countries

(% of world production)
1. Philippines (30%) 6. Thailand (3%)
2. Indonesia (26%) 7. Mexico (2%)
3. India (18%) 8. Vietnam (2%)
4. Brazil (5%) 9. Malaysia (1%)
5. Sri Lanka (3%) 10. Papua New Guinea

Coconuts are used to derive a number of products:

Copra – the dried endosperm or “meat” of coconut, commonly seen in cakes and candies.

Coconut oil – in 2002, production was slightly more than olive oil production.

Coconut cake – the residue left after pressing oil from copra, used as livestock feed

Coir – the fiber from the husk, used as packing material, rope, matting, fuel, and in potting mixes.

Water in immature coconuts provides a refreshing, nutritious drink.

Botanical Description


Trees are typical single-trunked palms, reaching up to 100 ft in height, but generally 20-50 ft in cultivation. Leaves are among the largest of any plant (up to 20 ft), pinnately compound with 200 or more leaflets, and borne in a spiral arrangement at the apex of the trunk. Leaf life span may be 3 years, and mature, healthy palms have about 30 leaves, forming a new one and dropping the oldest one each month.


Separate male and female flowers are borne in the same inflorescence, which is a compound spadix arising in the leaf axil. Flowers are off-white to gray or yellow, and inconspicuous. They are generally protandrous, meaning that male flowers release pollen before females become receptive. Flowering occurs continuously, since each leaf axil produces one inflorescence, and new leaves are produced approximately monthly.


Since coconuts are protandrous, they are believed to be largely cross pollinated. Dwarf cultivars, particularly the popular ornamentals, are largely self-pollinating as opposed to the Tall cultivars of commerce which rarely pollinate themselves.


Coconuts are large, dry drupes, ovoid in shape, up to 15′′ long and 12′′ wide. The exocarp or skin is green, yellow, or bronze-gold, turning to brown, depending on cultivar and maturity. The mesocarp is fibrous and dry at maturity; the product coir is derived from this layer. The endocarp is the hard shell enclosing the seed. Seeds are the largest of any plant, and have a thin brown seed coat. Seeds are filled with endosperm, which is solid and adherent to the seed coat, and also in liquid form, called “milk”. Copra is derived from the solid endosperm

General Culture

Soils and Climate

Soils – adaptable to many soil types, and can be grown inland provided adequate drainage and pH between 5.0 and 8.0.

Climate – below 1000 ft elevation, frost-free subtropical areas and climates with extended dry seasons provided irrigation, but grow best in areas with mean temperatures of 70-80°F

Water needs – 40-60′′ of water per year, and perform better in high humidity, supremely tolerant of hurricane force winds and driving rain, and rarely uprooted Tolerate salt spray better than most crops, and can tolerate brief flooding associated with tropical storms


Like most palms, coconuts are seed propagated.

Rootstocks – None.

Planting Design, Training, Pruning

Planting Design – about 25 ft apart in all directions, often intercropped with staples like maize or even other tree crops. Enough light penetrates the palm canopy to allow grasses to grow beneath, and thus coconut is often a component of tropical silvopastoral systems for raising livestock.

Pruning or training – none required, older fronds or those injured by frost or disease are sometimes pruned off. Injury to the apical bud is fatal.

Coconut Harvest, Postharvest Handling


Fully mature fruit require about one year to ripen, and are brown or black, depending on cultivar. The endosperm, from which the copra and oil are derived, is mature at 10 months after bloom. For coir production, fruit must be harvested about 1 month before full maturity, since the mesocarp fiber turns brittle and dark at maturity. Water coconuts are harvested when about 7 months old, just after fruit reaches its full size and prior to mesocarp drying.

Harvest Method

Coconuts fall from trees when fully mature, and are easily collected from the ground.

Postharvest Handling

Coconuts intended for copra or oil production are split open with a machete, discarding the milk, and exposing the endosperm to the sun to dry. Drying takes 2-5 days in the sun, or can be done more quickly in kilns. Once dry, the copra is removed from the seeds with metal tools, and further dried to reach a water content of 5-6%. Coconut oil for is extracted mechanically by pressing, or chemically by the use of solvents.


Whole coconuts can be stored for several weeks prior to dehusking and extracting copra. Fruit are kept dry, but stored at ambient temperatures.

The Coconut's Contribution to Diet

Several food uses or products exist for coconut. The primary product is copra, the white “meat” found adhering to the inner wall of the shell. It is dried to 2.5% moisture content, shredded, and used in cakes, candies, and other confections.

Alternatively, coconut oil is expressed from copra, which is used in a wide variety of cooked foods and margarine. The raw copra can be grated and squeezed to obtain coconut “milk”. Coconut water is obtained from immature coconuts, providing a welcome source of fresh, sterile water in hot, tropical environments. The sap from the cut end of an inflorescence produces up to a gallon per day of brown liquid, rich in sugars and vitamin C.

It can be boiled down into a brown sugar called “jaggery”, used as a sugar substitute in many areas. Left to ferment, the sap makes an alcoholic toddy, and later vinegar; “arrack” is made by distilling the toddy, and is a common, potent alcoholic spirit.

Per capita consumption of coconut is 0.6 lbs/year. Coconut oil is probably consumed in greater quantities than confectionary coconut products, but coconut oil would be only a small percentage of the 47 lbs of vegetable oils consumed annually.

Dietary value, per 100 gram edible portion

Dry coconut (copra)  Coconut water
Water (%) 3.3 95
Calories  556 19
Protein (%) 3.6 0.7
Fat (%) 39.1 0.2
Carbohydrates (%) 53.2 3.7
Crude Fibre (%) 4.1 1.1
% of US RDA*
Vitamin A 0.8 0
Thiamin, B1 <1 0
Riboflavin, B2 <1 0
Niacin <1 0
Vitamin C 0-7 5.3
Calcium 5.4 3.0
Phosphorous 23.9 2.5
Iron 36 3.0
Sodium 0.4 2.4
Potassium 16.4 5.3

* Percent of recommended daily allowance set by FDA, assuming a 154 lb male adult, 2700 calories per day.

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