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inside a coconut

Found and exploited in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, the exact origins of the coconut are unknown.


The name of this fruit is derived from the Spanish word coco, meaning "monkey face," because the three indentations on one end resemble the head and face of a monkey.


Botanically, the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is not a tree, it is a woody perennial. The trunk, which is technically the stem, can be up to 18 inches in diameter, and the palm can reach a height of about 100 feet. The palm is topped by a crown of about 20 pinnate leaves that generally curve downward, each of which is about 10 to 15 feet long. The fruit grows in clusters of 10 to 20 or more, and there may be 10 or more of these clusters, in different stages of maturity, on a single palm. Wild coconut palms can produce up to 100 fruits per year, with each fruit taking about a year to ripen.

coconut palm

coconuts on the tree

Although the species name nucifera means "nut bearing," the coconut is actually a drupe, a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed (peaches and olives are also drupes). All drupes have three layers -- the exocarp (outer layer), the mesocarp (fleshy middle layer), and the endocarp (hard, woody layer that surrounds the seed). In the case of the coconut, the exocarp is typically smooth with a greenish color. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp. When you buy a coconut at the supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are usually removed and what you see is the endocarp. The crisp, white "meat" inside the coconut is what nourishes the coconut seed.

cut-away view of a coconut

Uses and Benefits

Virtually every part of the coconut and coconut palm can be used by humans.

Coconuts are part of the daily diets of many people. Coconut meat is used fresh or dried in cooking (dried coconut meat is called copra), especially in confections and desserts such as macaroons. Dried coconut is also used as the filling for many chocolate bars.

Coconut water (the liquid inside fresh coconuts) serves as a suspension medium for the endosperm of the coconut during its nuclear phase of development. Later, the endosperm matures and deposits onto the coconut rind during the cellular phase. Coconut water contains sugar, dietary fiber, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, making it an excellent substitute for "straight water." Because it is generally biologically sterile, doctors during World War II and Vietnam used coconut water in substitution of IV solutions.

Coconut milk, which is obtained primarily by pressing the grated coconut's white kernel or by passing hot water or milk through grated coconut, is a common ingredient in many tropical cuisines. It can also be consumed raw by itself, or used as a milk substitute by vegans or people allergic to animal milk.

Coconut oil has provided the primary source of fat in the diets of millions of people for generations. Once thought to be higher in saturated fat than lard and butter, recent research has found that the fats in coconut oil may actually help decrease harmful cholesterol levels. Long used in traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of conditions, modern science has confirmed that coconut oil is effective against many viruses and bacteria. In addition to its culinary uses, coconut oil is also used as a base for many cosmetics, soaps, and skin lotions.

Coconut husk fibers (called coir) have long been woven into mats, ropes, brooms, etc. Today they are also used in insulation and packaging, and horticulturalists frequently recommend using coconut husks as a growing medium because, unlike traditional sphagnum moss, they are generally free of bacteria and fungal spores. The leaves of the coconut palm make excellent roof thatching, and the palm trunk is used by many cultures as a primary building material. Some cultures also make a sweet drink from the sap of the coconut flower.


Coconut Research Center
Everyday Mysteries

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The Robinson Library >> Fruit and Fruit Culture

This page was last updated on 09/17/2018.