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What is a Coconut Palm Tree?

A collage of coconut life cycle.

Cocos Nucifera

Is there one specific image that your mind conjures when one utters the word “tropical”? Chances are it’s either a Pina Colada or a palm tree. This remarkable tree is remarkable for so many reasons, so stick around for a while and come get to know cocos Nucifera.

Coconut palm trees are part of the palm tree family (Arecaceae) and are the current only living species of the genus Cocos. The word palm refers to the long and distinguished leaves of the plant, whereas the word coconut (historically, cocoanut) refers to the fruit, or drupe, that grows on the tree.

The word cocoa actually comes from old Portuguese, which translates directly to “skull”. It isn’t hard to guess why, as a coconut comes with a very hard, round shell, and 3 indents that could be perceived as facial features.

looking up the trunk of a coconut palm tree with growing coconuts and large palm fronds

These incredible trees have been known as “the tree of life” in many different cultures. It is thought that this phrase comes from the Sanskrit phrase, Kalpa vriksha, which translates to “the tree which provides all the necessities of life.” The tree gets this name because every single aspect of the tree can be used; trunk, bark, leaves, roots, fruit, flowers, everything. They have purposes in cosmetics, fuel, food, medicine, and building materials.

So without further ado, we introduce to you, the one, the only, coconut palm tree. You’ll quickly discover that trees are much cooler and more dynamic than you could have ever imagined. So once you’re done here, head on over to 101 Types of Trees where you can learn about different tree types from all around the world!


Related: Coconut Sugar | Coconut Milk | Coconut Flour | Types of Coconut Oil | Types of Coconuts

What do Coconut Palm Trees Look Like?

Root System

Coconut palm trees are unique from other trees, and one of the ways this is true, is by observing their root systems. These trees have neither tap root, not root hairs!

Coconut palms have a fibrous root system. This means that the roots grow very prosperously, very shallow in the soil, and in a very wide-spreading manner. These roots are much thinner and grow erratically, though there are several more robust roots that will grow a little bit deeper in the earth to help provide stability.

This root system is known as either a fibrous root system or an adventitious root system, and it is a feature that coconut palms have in common with various grass species!


Coconut palm trees are tall and towering trees, which an average height of 30 meters. Despite having such a tall trunk, the trunk is rather thin, usually only about 18 inches around. But we don’t have to worry too much about the tree blowing over.

Coupled with their expansive root system, coconut palms also have remarkably flexible trunks, ensuring that the tree will simply bend over when subjected to heavy winds, rather than completely snapping in half or being pulled out of the earth.

cluster of coconut palm trees growing on a beach in front of a crystal blue ocean with small sailboat

Growth Pattern

Coconut palm trees have a very iconic shape, with hyper narrow and straight trunks that meet in incredible crowns comprised of huge fan-like leaves.


Coconut palms are slightly different from other trees, in that they don’t actually have bark. What they have instead, is basically scars. When a palm tree grows, the palm fronds grow directly from the trunk.

As the tree grows, it sheds older fronds as newer ones emerge. What is leftover, is “sclerified” or hardened cells where the palm fronds were attached to the trunk. The color of the trunk can range from being either light gray or light brown, but the color is always noticeably bleached by the sun.


Coconut palm tree foliage is better known as a palm frond. Palm fronds are enormous, with an average length occurring between 4 and 6 meters! That’s one of the largest leaves on the planet.

One leaf is comprised of several thin and narrow leaflets, that are arranged symmetrically along a long stalk. Palm fronds are a dark green color, sometimes fading into a lighter green or yellow in drought conditions.

close up image of bright green palm fronds overlapping each other

How do Coconut Palm Trees Reproduce?


Coconut palm trees are monoecious, meaning that both male flowers and female flowers will occur on the same inflorescence. Both the female flower and the male flower will develop in a large green bud that is known as a spathe. The spathe splits open as the flowers are growing, and one spathe will contain hundreds of both genders of flowers.

Male flowers resemble lilies, whereas female flowers resemble small coconuts! Once flowers are out in the open, pollen from the male flower will be brought to female flowers through either insect pollination or wind pollination.


Once a female flower is fertilized, 10 months later, a fruit will emerge and begin to ripen. One tree can produce 75 fruits per year in exactly ideal conditions, but 30 fruits per year is a more common number.

This fruit is better known as a coconut. Even though “nut” is in the name, coconuts are actually part of the drupe family (like apricots and cherries), not the nut family.

Wild coconuts are known to have more of a rounded triangular shape, less coconut meat, with a thicker husk. This makes the fruit impeccably buoyant and helps with ocean dispersal. Domesticated coconuts are known to have more of a circular shape with thinner husks, and much more coconut meat.

incredible yellow palm tree flowers growing behind green ripening coconuts on top of a coconut palm tree

Coconut Development

Coconuts can be divided into three layers; the exocarp, the mesocarp, and the endocarp.

The exocarp is the glossy, outer skin of the fruit. It usually either a yellow-green or yellow-brown color. The mesocarp is the fibrous layer, more commonly known as coir, or the coconut husk. The endocarp is the hard shell with the 3 distinct germination pores.

The endocarp is where the endosperm is contained, which is better known as coconut water. As the fruit matures, layers of endosperm slowly deposit within the endocarp walls and start to become more solid than liquid.

This solid endosperm is known as either coconut meat or coconut flesh, and this is the part of the fruit that is edible, delicious, and nutritious.

Sexual Maturity

Most trees will start producing fruit between the ages of 6 and 10. They reach their peak production of fruit between the ages of 15 and 20. This makes for a very valuable commercial tree, that becomes sexually mature very early in its life.

Where do Coconut Palm Trees Grow?

There is a lot of debate surrounding where the coconut palm tree originates from. Some sources say that these trees were first domesticated by Austronesian peoples in southeastern Asia, and the domestication spread during the Neolithic era.

Regardless of where the tree began its prosperity, it is now one of the most popular trees on the planet. Well, in regions that are wet and hot enough to host the tree.

Coconut palm trees can grow anywhere in the world that consistently hot, and more or less consistently moist all year round. 75% of the world’s coconut palm trees are growing in the most tropical countries, in Indonesia, India, and the Philippines.

birds eye view of coconut palm tree forest tropical shore landscape

What are the Growing Conditions of Coconut Palm Trees?


Coconut palm trees will strictly grow in sandy soil types that are well-drained. They have a very high tolerance of soil salinity, which is obvious from their close proximity to oceans.


These trees are entirely intolerant of cold weather, and even a couple days of severe frost could easily kill a coconut palm tree. They prefer to exist in a mean annual temperature ranging from 82 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Now that’s what I call balmy!

Water Level

Coconut palm trees need high humidity and high annual precipitation to experience optimum growth levels. They prefer to receive a minimum of 1500 mm of rain per year, whereas as amounts closer to 2500 mm of rain per year is optimal.

Sun Exposure

These trees are also entirely intolerant of shade, and must have nothing but abundant, direct sunlight, all year round.

single coconut palm tree growing on a pristine white sandy beach next to turquoise ocean

How is the Coconut Palm Tree Used?

As we mentioned in the introduction, every single part of the coconut palm tree can be used, rightfully earning the tree the nickname “the tree of life”.

Coconut Water

Earlier we went through the development of the coconut fruit, and learned that the coconut water we know and love, is actually the endosperm of the fruit.

Coconut water is extracted from a young coconut, or a green coconut, before they are fully developed and have turned into coconut meat. Coconut water is extremely refreshing and high in electrolytes, making it an even more efficient hydrator than most sports drinks.

Coconut Meat

Coconut meat is extracted from a mature coconut. There are various liquid coconut products that are produced by combining coconut meat and coconut water, the most popular ones being coconut butter, coconut milk, and coconut cream.

Coconut meat that is dried out is called copra. Copra can be ground and dried and used as coconut flour, or from there it can also be made into coconut sugar.

mature coconut cracked in half with coconut meat coconut milk and dried coconut on a cloth sitting on a wooden table

Coconut Coir

Coconut coir, or the fibrous husk of the plant, is used almost as a textile. Coir can be used as stuffing for mattresses or pillows, woven into rugs, blankets, baskets, or rope. The hard coconut shell can also be used as a charcoal, making it a very valuable fuel tree as well.

Coconut Oil

Not only is coconut oil extremely integral to many cultures of cooking, but it is also very valued for its cosmetic purposes as well.

Coconut oil, or palm oil, is made into balms, soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, salves, and many more cosmetic products. It is very moisturizing to both hair and skin.

processed bottle of coconut oil sitting on a wooden table next to a cracked coconut

Coconut Sap

The coconut sap extract is very sweet, and is often used into delicious drinks, it can be fermented and turned into liquor, or it can also be made into palm wine or coconut vinegar.

Coconut Roots

Coconut roots can be extracted and used as medicine for dysentery or indigestion, or as a mouth wash to help keep breath fresh. Otherwise, they can also be extracted and boiled down to used as a natural dye, for an attractive earthy red/brown color.

Coconut Leaves

Coconut leaves can be taken down as essentially used as a textile. The leaves are very firm and sturdy, and can be woven into brushes, baskets, brooms, mats, and roofing.

very young coconut palm trees growing in plantation