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    Is a coconut a fruit, nut or seed?


    Botanically speaking, a coconut is a fibrous one-seeded drupe, also known as a dry drupe. However, when using loose definitions, the coconut can be all three: a fruit, a nut, and a seed.

Botanists love classification. However, classification of plants can be a complicated matter for the average person. Coconuts are classified as a fibrous one-seeded drupe. A drupe is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed (like a peach or olive) and comes from the word drupa meaning overripe olive. A coconut, and all drupes, have three layers:  the exocarp (outer layer), the mesocarp (fleshy middle layer), and the endocarp (hard, woody layer that surrounds the seed).

The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble the coconut you find growing on a coconut palm. An untouched coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is typically smooth with a greenish color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed.  Generally speaking, when you buy a coconut at the supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are removed and what you see is the endocarp.

Some scientists like to refer to the coconut as a water dispersal fruit and seed. A seed is the reproductive unit of a flowering plant. From a reproductive point of view, a seed has the “baby” plant inside, with two basic parts: the embryo root (hypocotyl) and the embryo leaves (epicotyl). In the coconut’s case, if you look at one end of the coconut, you’ll see three pores (also called eyes). The coconut seed germinates and a shoot emerges from one of the pores. In addition to the “baby” plant in the seed, there is the food to kick off its life called the endosperm. The endosperm is what makes up most of the seed and, in the coconut’s case, is the yummy white stuff we eat.

The word coconut itself can also be confusing because the word “nut” is contained in the word. A nut can be defined as a one- seeded fruit. With that loose definition, a coconut can also be a nut. However, a coconut is not a true nut. A true nut, such as the acorn, are indehiscent or do not open at maturity to release its seeds. The seeds are released when the fruit wall decays or are digested by an animal.

Yet another interesting aspect of the coconut that has baffled scientists for over 200 years is where did it originate? Is it of Old World or New World origin? Scientists have used art, botany, entomology, etymology, folklore, fossils, genetics, and travel records to try to figure out where the coconut first appeared.

Odoardo Beccari, a renowned palm specialist from the early 20th century, suggests that the coconut is of Old World origin and more than likely came from the Indian Archipelago or Polynesia.  To strengthen his argument, there are more varieties of coconut palms in the Eastern hemisphere than in the Americas.

However, some scientists (O.F. Cook , H.B. Guppy, K.F.P. von Martius,) argue that the coconut is of New World origins, having migrated westward across the Pacific.

Interesting Coconut Facts

  • Every bit of the coconut is used. As a result, coconuts are called the “Tree of Life” and can produce drink, fiber, food, fuel, utensils, musical instruments, and much more.

  • When intra-venous (IV) solution was in short supply, doctors during World War II and Vietnam used coconut water in substitution of IV solutions.

  • Botanically, the coconut palm is not a tree since there is no bark, no branches, or secondary growth. A coconut palm is a woody perennial monocotyledon with the trunk being the stem.

  • Possibly the oldest reference is from Cosmas, a 5th century AD Egyptian traveler. He wrote about the “Indian nut” or “nut of India” after visiting India and Ceylon, Some scholars believe Cosmas was describing a coconut.

  • Soleyman, an Arab merchant, visited China in the 9th century and describes the use of coir fiber and toddy made from coconuts.

  • In 16th century, Sir Francis Drake called coconut “nargils”, which was the common term used until the 1700’s when the word coconut was established.

  • It takes 11 -12 months for the coconut to mature.

  • At one time scientists identified over 60 species of Cocos palm.  Today, the coconut is a monotypic with one species, nucifera. However, there are over 80 varieties of coconut palms, which are defined by characteristics such as dwarf and tall.

  • Coconut growing regions are as far north as Hawaii and as far south as Madagascar.
Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • The Coconut Palm - By Dr. Ignazio Li Vigni. This site provides information and research on the mystery of the coconut palm’s place of origin.
  • Coconut Palms from Seed - From the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii at Manoa. This fact sheet provides information on how to grow a coconut palm. PDF 19.2 KB
  • Coconut Timeline - This Web site lists references to publications about the coconut.
  • Fruits called nuts - From Wayne’s Word. Scroll down to the section on the coconut.
  • USDA Plants Profile: Coco nucifera L (coconut palm) - The plant profile provides information on the classification, distribution (U.S), and images of the coconut palm.

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Beccari, O.  The origin and dispersal of cocos nucifera.  The Philippine journal of science, C. Botany, v.7, Jan. 1917: 27- 43.
  • Davidson, Alan.  Coconut in Penguin companion to food. New York, Penguin Reference, c2002.  p. 239-241.
  • Duke, James A.  Cocos nucifera L.  in Handbook of nuts.  Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, c2001. p. 100-109.
  • Hill, Arthur W.  The original home and mode of dispersal of the coconut.  Nature, v. 124, July 27, 1929: 133-134, 151-153.
  • Macbean, Valerie.  Coconut cookery: a practical cookbook encompassing innovative uses of the tropical drupe Cocus nucifera, accompanied by assorted information and anecdotes ranging from hard data to the frankly frivolous.  Berkeley, Frog Ltd., North Atlantic Books, c2001.  198 p.
  • Modern coconut management: palm cultivation and products. Edited by J. G. Ohler.  London, Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999.  458 p.
  • Rosengarten, Frederic Jr.  Coconuts  in The book of edible nuts.  Mineola, NY, Dover Publications, 2004. p. 65-93.
  • Woodroof, Jasper Guy.  Coconuts: production, processing, products.  Westport, CT, AVI Publishing Co., 1970. 
    241 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "coconut," "coconut industry," "coconut palm," "coconut products," "cookery--coconut" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Color graphic showing six different colors of coconut.
Colour variation of the coconut fruit from Sampson, Hugh Charles. The coconut palm.  London, J. Bale, sons & Danielsson, ltd., 1923. 

Drawing of coconuts showing the layers of a coconut.
Plate XXa from Sampson, Hugh Charles. The coconut palm.  London, J. Bale, sons & Danielsson, ltd., 1923. 

Color graphic of a coconut showing the three "eyes."
 Frontpiece from Sampson, Hugh Charles. The coconut palm.  London, J. Bale, sons & Danielsson, ltd., 1923.

Photo:  coconut with a ruler measuing the stalk.
Plate II from from Barrett, Otis Warren. The Philippine coconut industry Manila, Bureau of printing, 1913.

Photo: inside of a coconut with a ruler showing its hight.
 Plate II from Barrett, Otis Warren. The Philippine coconut industry Manila, Bureau of printing, 1913.

Color graphic showing the roots coming out of a coconut.
Plate XXd from Sampson, Hugh Charles. The coconut palm.  London, J. Bale, sons & Danielsson, ltd., 1923.

Photo: man under trees, with piles of coconuts on the ground. Plate XI from Barrett, Otis Warren. The Philippine coconut industry Manila, Bureau of printing, 1913.

Photo: hut with a person in the doorway, surrounded by huge coconut trees.
Photo: "San Juan, Puerto Rico, and vicinity, 1901-1903: coconut palms." Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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  August 23, 2010
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