You can’t talk about tropical species without at least mentioning the Coconut Palm. It’s probably one of the most recognizable tropical species, but how much do you really know about it? Before I started my research, I really didn’t know much despite regular consumption of the fruit. People often place interest on species based on their rarity, but I think that you can find something interesting about any species, and the coconut tree is no exception.
What’s in a name?
We refer to them as coconut trees, but they are not actually trees nor do they have nuts! The “tree” is composed of fibers, and doesn’t contain any wood. Technically speaking, this makes it an herbaceous plant and not a tree.
The name nucifera is Latin for “nut-bearing”, though the coconut is actually a drupe and not a nut. Basically, nuts consist of a hard shell with a single seed inside. Drupes are similar to nuts but have fleshy fruit around the core. In some cases, we eat only the fruit portion, like mango, peaches, and cherries. Other times, we eat only the inner “nut”, as is the case with almonds, cashews, and coconuts.
Cocos nucifera is the only species of the genus Cocos, though there are variants within the species. Voanioala gerardii, the forest coconut, is its closest relative. The coconut palm most likely originated somewhere between India and Indonesia and dispersed when coconuts were swept away by ocean currents.
Down to the roots
The coconut tree grows in sandy soils, and has thin fibrous roots that grow outward near the surface. Only a few larger roots grow deeper for stability. This growth pattern is typical in grasses, but unusual for large tree-like plants. Growing straight out of sand in hurricane-prone areas, I would assume it would need more structural roots, but perhaps this system makes it more flexible in strong winds.
New plants are grown from husked ripe nuts, which are partially covered in soil. They begin growing fruit after 5-6 years, and don’t reach their full bearing potential for 15 years. At this point they may produce up to 100 coconuts per year. Fruits take a full year to ripen. Liquid is found only in the unripe fruit, which is the coconut water we consume.
Although most of the coconut production is for western industries, the cultural uses are far greater in it’s native range. In these areas, people tend to use more of the fruit, including the husk and shell. Fibre from the husks, for example, is resistant to salt water and is used for ropes and baskets.
There are many techniques for climbing and harvesting coconut trees, but the most interesting method can be found in Thailand and Malaysia. For over 400 years, pig-tailed macaques have been trained to pick coconuts! Now that’s something I would love to see.
Barclay, E. (2015). What’s Funny About The Business Of Monkeys Picking Coconuts? Nevada Public Radio. Found HERE
Courteau, J. Cocos nucifera, Coconut. Encyclopedia of Life. Found HERE
Gilman, E.F., and Watson, D.G. (1993). Cocos nucifera, Coconut Palm. University of Florida. Found HERE