The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) has a long history as a widely used and cultivated plant. Despite the heaviness of its fruit, the coconut, these swaying palms decorate sidewalks and yards, providing shade and tropical beauty. Like other trees, the growth cycle of the coconut palm has distinctive stages, as does the fruit itself.
The coconut palm has a distinct preference for certain site requirements, although it tolerates a range of adverse circumstances. These trees grow best in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 and 11. The soil must be well drained; the palms grow well in sandy or loamy soil. Soil pH doesn't matter too much, and coconut palms can handle brackish soils and salt spray. Wind and temporary flooding don't bother these hardy palms. The average temperature should be 72 degrees Fahrenheit or above, in a planting location that receives at least 30 to 50 inches of rain per year.
These long-lived trees reach full production between 15 and 20 years old, but will start producing fruit between 6 and 10 years old. Different cultivars vary in fruit output, but, in general, a coconut palm will produce 50 to 200 coconuts per year until it is about 80 years old.
When you purchase a whole coconut at the store, you typically receive a fraction of the entire fruit. As a drupe -- a fruit with a stony covering around the seed -- the coconut has three layers: an outer layer, the exocarp; a fleshy layer, the mesocarp; and a hard, woody layer around the seed, the endocarp. The brown coconuts at the store are the endocarp and seed.
As the exocarp matures, it starts out green in most cases and eventually turns brownish in color, especially after picking. Unlike most other fruits, the endosperm, or food for the young seed inside, is liquid. It is the endosperm that's used for coconut milk and coir. Once the seed is fully mature, the endosperm becomes firmer and is harvested to make oil.
The coconut grows and reaches maturity over approximately 11 to 12 months. Throughout this time, people may harvest the coconuts for various uses. For example, coconuts grown for drinking are ready after about 7 months. Immature fruits also have a softer meat, which is suitable for eating or using in recipes. For shredded coconut or to make coconut oil, only mature fruits should be used.