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Last Update 06/12/08
Plant of the Month

 Cocos nucifera

 Coconut Palm

"She put the lime in the coconut, she drank 'em both up..." Harry Nilsson

Coconut Palms are, no doubt, the most universally recognized and economically important palm. Imagine how boring the world would be without the sweet tropical flavor of it in tropical drinks, coconut macaroons, and coconut shrimp. Palm Beach, Florida would have never gotten its name and comedians would not have coconut cream pies to throw at people. How boring would life be without the coconut?

Copra (the dried "meat" of the coconut seed), from which oil is extracted, is a significant cash crop throughout the tropics. Coir, the fiber from the fruit, is used in manufacturing. The fruits, or coconuts, yield several food products at different stages of development, and the leaves are used for thatch or are woven into baskets, mats and clothing. Even the trunks are used for construction. Of the tribe Cocoeae, and subfamily Arecaceae they are known by the botanic name Cocos nucifera.

Coconut palms can grow to over 100 feet tall.
Coconut palms can grow to over 100 feet tall.
Click image to enlarge.


Maypan coconut palm. Click image to enlarge.
Maypan coconut palm
Click image to enlarge.

Orange husked coconuts. Click Image to enlarge.
Orange husked coconuts.
Click image to enlarge.

Coconut palms are popular landscape plants in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Coconut palms are also popular in more temperate areas. In Florida, this palm came be grown successfully from the Keys as far north as the Palm Beaches on the east coast and Fort Myers on the west coast. Because of global warming that range is moving further north and there are even some coconut palms growing happily in Orlando, Florida (there is a nice one in the courtyard of Bob Marley - A Tribute To Freedom in CityWalk and near the dolphin tanks at Sea World in Orlando). But, be ware, that the first hard freeze will most likely kill a coconut palm not growing in a sheltered area outside of its tropical/subtropical range.

Coconut Varieties

Common name Scientific name
Coconut Cocos nucifera
Double coconut Lodoicea maldivica
Dwarf yellow coconut Cocos nucifera 'Dwarf Yellow'
Dwarf orange coconut Cocos nucifera 'Dwarf Orange'
Golden Malay coconut Cocos nucifera 'Golden Malay'
Dwarf green coconut Cocos nucifera 'Dwarf Green'
Fiji Dwarf (Niu Leka) Cocos nucifera 'Niu Leka'
Green Malay coconut Cocos nucifera 'Green Malay'
King coconut Cocos nucifera 'King'
Makapuno coconut Cocos nucifera 'Makapuno'
Maypan coconut Cocos nucifera 'Maypan'
Nawassi coconut Cocos nucifera 'Nawassi'
Yellow Malay coconut Cocos nucifera 'Yellow Malay'


Sprouting Coconuts

So you want to grow your own coconut palm from a coconut you found? Great, and guess what -- it is pretty easy to do.

To start a coconut from the seed, you want a freshly fallen brown, dry nut with the outer fibrous husk intact

In a 3-gallon plastic pot place high quality potting soil mixed with 40% coarse sand (I suggest clean bagged sand that you can get at a depot store or, if you are frugal and willing to work for it, coarse beach sand). Add rocks for drainage to the bottom of the pot

Lay the coconut on the ground to see which way it rests then plant the coconut 1/2 way into the soil in the same position.

Find a place in partial shade to place the pot and water occasionally to keep the soil barely moist -- too much water may cause the nut to rot.

It can take up to 9 nine months for a coconut palm to sprout from seed, actually it is not uncommon for a coconut palm to take many months to sprout.

When it begins to sprout, a coconut will split its husk at the bottom and send down roots. It may take several months before the coconut splits the top of the husk to push up its first fronds.

After the coconut sprouts, it can be left in the 3-gallon pot for about 3-6 months. After that, plant it in another larger pot or directly into the soil. Be sure to add composted manure and fertilize on schedule after the plant sprouts at least 3 fronds.

Coconut palms make great tropical accent plants. Click image to enlarge.
Coconut palms make great tropical accent plants. Click image to enlarge.

Green husked coconuts on the tree. Click image to enlarge.
Green husked coconuts.
Click image to enlarge.

Close-up of coconut palm trunk. Click image to enlarge.
Close-up of coconut palm trunk.
Click image to enlarge.

Coconut palm fronds. Click image to enlarge.
Coconut palm fronds.
Click image to enlarge.

How to Open Coconuts

The coconut palm starts fruiting 6 to 10 years after the seed germinates and reaches full production at 15 to 20 years of age. It continues to fruit until it is about 80 years old with an annual production of 50 to 200 fruits per tree, depending on cultivar and climate. The fruits require about a year to develop and are generally produced regularly throughout the year.

The easiest way to crack open a coconut with the husk still on it is with a machete. But if you do not have this tool handy or are concerned that you might accidentally cut something off that you need, the more strenuous and time consuming, but safer way is to smash it to the ground on concrete pavement. This is the method I used when I was younger and found myself without any cutting tools at hand. The method is simple: basically you take the pointed end of the coconut (not the end that was attached to the stalk), point it at the cement (ie. sidewalk) and from a distance of about 3-4 feet toss it like a football at the ground. this might take a few shots, but if you have a ripe coconut, are lucky or skillful, you will be able to get the husk to split long-ways around the circumference of the coconut. Then you can peel off the husk and crack the coconut's shell to get to the meat inside. 

Plant Facts:

Common Name:  Coconut Palm

Botanical Name:  Cocos nucifera

Subfamily:  Arecaceae

Plant Type:  Solitary Palm Tree

Origin:  The Pacific Islands, but widely distributed world-wide in tropics

Zones: 10 - 11

Height:  10-100' depending on variety

Rate of Growth: Moderate

Salt Tolerance: High

Soil Requirements:  Widely adaptable

Water Requirements: High drought tolerance, avoid flooding and long standing water

Nutritional Requirements: Moderate, but fertilize regularly for best growth and overall health

Light Requirements: High

Form:  Solitary palm, canopy of 20-30 leaves

Leaves:  Pinnately compound, reduplicate, slightly twisted, eventually drooping with 150-200 leaflets.

Inflorescence: 3-5' long

Fruits: Green, yellow, orange, eventually brown

Pests or diseases:  Most varieties are susceptible to lethal yellowing (Fiji Dwarf 'Niu Leka' is the most resistant to the disease, but not yet widely available commercially in the state), potassium deficiency, bud rot, gandomera, Palm Aphid and Coconut Mite.

Uses:  Specimen plant

Bad Habits: Susceptible to lethal yellowing, very tall trees likely to be struck by lightening.

Cost:  $0 - $$$ -- free to expensive depending on variety and height

Propagation:   Fresh seed, germinates in 4-9 months

Source:  Betrocks Guide to Landscape Palms; AMERICAN HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY A-Z ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GARDEN PLANTS; The Coconut Palm in Florida, Timothy K. Broschat and Jonathan H. Crane

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