Characteristics of Coconut Trees

Picture yourself on a tropical beach and chances are your imagination puts in at least one or two swaying palm trees framing those warm white sands and lapping waves. The coconut palm, or Cocos nucifera, is a tropical plant. In the United States, it thrives in Hawaii, North Carolina, Florida and Puerto Rico. Sometimes referred to as the "Tree of Life," the plant provided food, building materials and even everyday utensils to indigenous tropical populations.

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Coconut palms are a familiar sight on tropical beaches.

Trunk and Foliage

Not considered a true tree, it has no bark or branches, but rather is one large stem, slightly larger at the bottom, topped with a growth of large leaves called fronds. When mature, a coconut palm can reach 60 feet in height and its feather shaped leaves grow 18 feet long and 4 feet wide. The spineless stalks add another 3 to 5 feet to the overall length. The roots embed themselves at least 60 inches into the soil and have a high salt tolerance.

Flowers

Both male and female flowers exist on the same coconut palm, usually when the plant is between 4 to 6 years old. Sheaths, shaped much like long, thin canoes appear among the leaves, measuring between 2 and 3 feet long. Each sheath grows branchlets, which hold the flowers. The small yellow male flowers are at the ends of these mini-branches. The female flowers, also yellow but larger, grow at the base of the branchlets.

The Coconut

Once pollinated, the resulting coconut fruit grows in clusters, half hidden among the fronds. A coconut is classified as a drupe, a fruit that encases its seed in a hard, stone-like covering. The coconut has three layers. The exocarp is smooth and green. The mesocarp is fibrous, giving the coconut a shaggy appearance. These two layers are usually missing from the coconuts you find in the market. The third layer is the endocarp, and is the brown, bark-like covering surrounding the rich white coconut meat and sweet coconut juice. Coconuts are oval shaped and grow up to 15 inches in length and 12 inches in width.

Dispersal

Coconuts fall from the palm when ripe and, if conditions are right, will germinate where they land. The several layers of protection for the embryonic plant inside the coconut make it possible for the fruit to drift for several miles over open ocean and then wash ashore to germinate on a distant bit of land. The embryo is embedded in the coconut meat, or the endosperm. When it is ready to germinate, the new plant grows through a germination pore, a tiny hole at one end of the coconut.