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the web of life in southern Africa

Cocos nucifera (Coconut Palm)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Arecales > Family: Arecaceae

Cocos nucifera (Coconut Palm)  

Cocos nucifera (Coconut palm). [photo John E. Burrows ]


Coconut Palms are native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean region and grow at the top of beaches, at the limit of wave action. They are grown in large plantations and are used for producing many products, such as coconut oil (from the white endosperm in the coconut), wine ('toddy'), spirit ('arrack') and coir matting. The white endosperm is used in cooking and confectionery.

The Coconut Palm Cocos nucifera is believed to have evolved in the Indo-Pacific Ocean region which is where its greatest genetic diversity occurs. Coconuts are seeds adapted for water-born dispersal and can remain viable after having floated in the sea for six months or more. Coconut seeds wash up on tropical island shores where they start germinating at the upper limit of wave reach, which is where the outer edge of tropical beach thicket occurs. Male and female flowers are on the same plant (monoecious) so a single coconut seed is able to start a new colony.  Peak coconut production occurs when trees are about 30-60 years old but trees are still productive when over a hundred years old.

The inside of a coconut consists of endosperm which is liquid in a green nut and solid white in a ripe one. The contents of coconuts must have been eaten or drunk by people in the Indo-Pacific region from the earliest of times. Colonisation of new islands depended on the presence of coconuts to provide food and drink, and coconuts were probably carried on board boats as sources of food and drink during long journeys of discovery. It seems that islands without coconuts were planted with them. For instance, it is thought that Polynesians introduced coconuts to Hawaii in the 12th century. 

Coconuts were introduced to the Atlantic region by the Portuguese. They were brought back from the Indian Ocean in 1498 by Vasco da Gama's expedition and in the 1500's, the Portuguese established coconut palms along the West African coast, on the Cape Verde archipelago and on the coastline of Brazil. Coconuts had been introduced to the West Indies by 1582. Commercial planting of coconut palms began in the mid-1800's and was linked to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1835: high labour crops such as sugar cane and cotton were in some areas (e.g. the Seychelles) replaced by low labour coconut plantations. Palms in large commercial plantations of the Indo-Pacific region (e.g. Philippines) now outnumber by a large margin those growing wild. World production is now about 40 billion nuts per year, these being grown mainly in Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka.


  • The liquid or solid endosperm is eaten or drunk raw, or used in a huge variety of recipes for cooked food.

  • The solid endosperm ('nut meat') is dried in the sun or in ovens fueled by burning the husks, to produce copra which has been the main form in which coconut has been exported as it keeps well. It contains about 60-70% coconut oil, but the oil is slow to become rancid. Grated copra is used in confectionery. The endosperm consists of saturated cholestrol-free fat as well as sugars, potassium and phosphorus.

  • Coconut oil is extracted from copra and used in a variety of ways including in cooking, margarine and soaps. From about 1850 to 1950, coconuts were the main commercial source of vegetable oils. They were then overtaken by soyabean and then by Oil Palm (Elaeis).

  • Coconut milk is produced by mixing grated coconut with hot water, producing a milky-white liquid containing coconut oil and aromatic substances. The milk is used in a wide variety of Asian recipes. An acceptible easy solution to producing coconut milk in your kitchen is to mix dessicated coconut with hot water in an electric blender. 

  • Leaves are used for constructing shelters and are also used in weaving baskets, etc.

  • Timber (called porcupine wood) is used in buildings.

  • Outer fibrous covering of the coconut (the mesocarp) is used for producing coir matting and rope.

  • Apical buds of old trees are canned as palm-hearts (cutting them off kills the tree).

  • The axis of the inflorescence is tapped for palm juice, which when fermented produces palm wine, termed toddy (toddy is also produced from other palm genera as well). When evaporated, the juice produces a crude sugar called jaggery (term also used for crude sugars produced from other palm species and from sugar cane). Toddy is distilled to produce the alcoholic spirit called arrack.



  • Mabberley, D.J. 1987. The Plant Book. A Portable Dictionary of the Higher Plants. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.

Text by Hamish Robertson