Cocos nucifera

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Related Links
Coconut palms: Planted along irrigation canal.
© Rafael T. Cadiz
Inflorescence: Inflorescence of golden dwarf coconut variety.
© Rafael T. Cadiz
Immature nuts
© Rafael T. Cadiz
Leaves
© Dan Skean, Jr., December 2002
A multi-storey coffee orchard provides a steady annual yield of coffee, plus numerous other products for home use or sale.
© Craig Elevitch
For ease of weed control (mowing) coffee is grown in the relatively level areas, while bananas are grown on the steeper, rocky slopes.
© Craig Elevitch
Intercropped langsat and coconut palms.
© Craig Elevitch
Integrated planting of coffee under macadamia nuts and coconuts.
© Craig Elevitch
A typical Pacific island home garden contains many plants for food, medicine, and household materials.
© Craig Elevitch
Despite the danger of falling nuts, coconuts are used throughout the Pacific in urban landscapes.
© Craig Elevitch
Coconuts and pandanus planted along bay front as urban landscaping.
© Craig Elevitch
Coconut plantation grazed by cattle.
© Craig Elevitch
A multi-story planting of fruit trees over coffee.
© Craig Elevitch

Cocos nucifera trees have a smooth, columnar, light grey-brown trunk, with a mean diameter of 30-40 cm at breast height, and topped with a terminal crown of leaves. Tall selections may attain a height of 24-30 m; dwarf selections also exist. Trunk slender and slightly swollen at the base, usually erect but may be leaning or curved.

Leaves pinnate, feather shaped, 4-7m long and 1-1.5 m wide at the broadest part. Leaf stalks 1-2 cm in length and thornless.

Inflorescence consists of female and male axillary flowers. Flowers small, light yellow, in clusters that emerge from canoe-shaped sheaths among the leaves. Male flowers small and more numerous. Female flowers fewer and occasionally completely absent; larger, spherical structures, about 25 mm in diameter. 

Fruit roughly ovoid, up to 5 cm long and 3 cm wide, composed of a thick, fibrous husk surrounding a somewhat spherical nut with a hard, brittle, hairy shell. The nut is 2-2.5 cm in diameter and 3-4 cm long. Three sunken holes of softer tissue, called ‘eyes’, are at one end of the nut. Inside the shell is a thin, white, fleshy layer known as the ‘meat’. The interior of the nut is hollow but partially filled with a watery liquid called ‘coconut milk’. The meat is soft and jellylike when immature but becomes firm with maturity. Coconut milk is abundant in unripe fruit but is gradually absorbed as ripening proceeds. The fruits are green at first, turning brownish as they mature; yellow varieties go from yellow to brown.

The generic name seems to be derived from the Portuguese ‘coco’, meaning ‘monkey’.

Ecology

C. nucifera is unknown in the wild state. In the coastal areas of the tropics and subtropics where it is grown, it requires a hot, moist climate and deep alluvial or loamy soil, thriving especially near the seaboard, but also considerable distance inland, provided climatic conditions and soil are suitable. Rocky, laterite or stagnant soils are unsuitable.

Native range
Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

Tree management

The correct planting density depends on soil moisture, variety and soil type. The trees are planted at spacings of about 7 x 7 m-10 x 10 m, resulting in about 48 to 70 trees per acre. In home gardens, they should be planted where they will receive full sun and not be crowded. The new tree should be watered immediately after planting and frequently thereafter until it is well established. At least 2.5 cm of water should be supplied weekly by rain or by irrigation. When cattle grazing is integrated with coconut cultivation, severe competition for moisture between palms, bush and grass can be minimized. Mulch applied to the soil surface around the tree will help retain soil moisture and restrict weed growth. About 12% of the old trees (over 60 years old) should be felled each year, resulting in the entire removal of an initial 94% stand over 8 years. All fronds, logs and stumps should be removed to control the spread of the rhinoceros beetle (Orycetes rhinoceras, O. moceros). There is need for a legume cover crop to fix nitrogen to the soil.

Seed storage behaviour is recalcitrant; 70% of excised embryos survived desiccation to 14-15% and 44% to 8-9% mc. Cryopreservation techniques for coconut embryos comprise 4 hours of pretreatment in a medium containing 600 g/l glucose and 15% glycerol, followed by rapid freezing and thawing. With this technique, 43% of embryos excised from immature fruits (7-8 months after pollination) survived 1 month’s cryostorage. A few cryopreserved embryos produced whole plants, but 33-93% of embryos excised from mature fruits that had been dried for 4 hours under a flow hood and then placed in the glucose and glycerol medium detailed above for 11-20 hours before rapid freezing in liquid nitrogen produced whole plants with growth delayed by 1-2 months compared with non-frozen embryos.

Flower pollen oven-dried at 40 deg. C for 40 hours can be stored over 35% sulphuric acid at room temperatures for 3 weeks. Pollen can be freeze-dried and stored under vacuum for 1 year or more. Freeze-dried pollen can be transported at ordinary pollen temperatures and will retain its viability for 4 months. In ordinary pollen samples, about 25% may be defective. The best germination was given at 30-35 deg. C with sucrose concentration of 10% and gelatin concentration of 30%.

C. nucifera is unknown in the wild state. In the coastal areas of the tropics and subtropics where it is grown, it requires a hot, moist climate and deep alluvial or loamy soil, thriving especially near the seaboard, but also considerable distance inland, provided climatic conditions and soil are suitable. Rocky, laterite or stagnant soils are unsuitable.

Seed has no dormancy, and growth of embryo and seedling is continuous. Germination may begin while the fruits are still attached to the palm, as can happen in the Malayan Dwarf and San Blas. Tissue culture is a popular method of vegetative propagation for producing a large number of progeny. For seed propagation, nuts are collected from selected mother palms or special seed gardens.

  Copra, the dried coconut endosperm, contains an edible cooking oil (coconut oil). The apical region of C. nucifera (‘millionaire salad’) is a food delicacy in areas where it is grown. Other food derivatives of coconut include coconut chips, coconut jam, coconut honey, coconut candy and other desserts.

Copra meal and coconut cake, the residues of oil extraction from copra containing approximately 20% protein, 45% carbohydrate, 11% fibre, fat, minerals and moisture, are used in cattle feed rations.

Apiculture: C. nucifera is an important pollen source for honey production. Where sap is tapped from unopened inflorescences for toddy-making, many bees drain in the collecting pots. The honey may be greenish-yellow like the motor oil and crystal clear if

The high moisture content of C. nucifera wood and the difficulty of splitting it has made it relatively unpopular as firewood. Coconut shell charcoal is a major source of domestic fuel in the Philippines. It is also exported to Japan and the USA. Coconut oil can be used as a substitute for diesel oils, for electric generating plants and motor vehicles. However, this use is non-economic in most situations at the present prices of fuel oil.

Fibre:  Three types of fibres are obtained from the coconut husks: mat fibre or yarn fibre, used in making mats; bristle fibre, used for brush making; and mattress fibre, used in stuffing mattresses and in upholstery. Leaflets are used in braiding mats, baskets and hats.

Timber: C. nucifera timber has traditionally been used in tropical countries for the structural framework of houses. Coconut timber taken from the lower and middle parts of the trunk can be used for load-bearing structures in buildings, such as frames, floors and trusses. Coconut trunks can be used for poles, as they have great strength and flexibility. The wood can also be used for furniture and parquet flooring.

Lipids:  The oil contains fatty alcohol and glycerine used in soaps, detergents, shampoos cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and explosives.

Ornamental:  Planted widely as an ornamental tree.

Soil improver:  Burnt husks form a useful sort of potash that is used to fertilize the trees. The husks also make valuable mulch for moisture conservation in the dry season and help to suppress weeds.

Intercropping:  Coconut palm is one of the most widely grown tree crops in the tropical countries. Its growth characteristics are ideal for small production and also for combining with other crops. The crown morphology and the relatively wide spacing facilitate the planting of a wide spectrum of field crops in coconut plantations. It has therefore been intercropped with cereals (cassava, sweet potatoes, yams) or fruits (bananas, passion fruit, pineapples and ground nuts) in many countries including Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines etc.

Alcohol:  Sap from the tender, unopened inflorescence (coconut palm sap) is used in the producing areas for toddy, or tuba, a beverage obtained by natural fermentation. Tuba contains 6-7.5% alcohol. The distillation of fermented coconut toddy yields a spi