Cocos nucifera (coconut)
- Summary of Invasiveness
- Taxonomic Tree
- Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature
- Plant Type
- Distribution Table
- History of Introduction and Spread
- Habitat List
- Biology and Ecology
- Latitude/Altitude Ranges
- Air Temperature
- Rainfall Regime
- Soil Tolerances
- Means of Movement and Dispersal
- Pathway Causes
- Pathway Vectors
- Impact Summary
- Environmental Impact
- Risk and Impact Factors
- Uses List
- Wood Products
- Distribution Maps
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PicturesTop of page
IdentityTop of page
Preferred Scientific Name
- Cocos nucifera L.
Preferred Common Name
Other Scientific Names
- Calappa nucifera (L.) Kuntze
- Cocos indica Royle
- Cocos nana Griffith
- Cocos nucifera var. synphyllica Becc.
International Common Names
- English: coconut palm; copra
- Spanish: coco de agua; cocotero; palma de coco; palmera cocotera; palmera de coco
- French: coco; cocotier; cocoyer; noix de coco
- Chinese: ye zi
- Portuguese: coqueiro
Local Common Names
- American Samoa: niu
- Brazil: coco da India; coco de Bahia; coco-da-bahia; coco-da-índia; coqueiro; coqueiro-da-bahia; coqueiro-da-índia; inaiá-guaçuíba; inajá-guaçú
- Cambodia: dôong
- Caribbean: cocos; cocospalm; klapperboom
- Cuba: coco blanco; coco indio; coco morado
- Germany: Kokosnusspalme
- India: narikel; nariyal; narlu; thengu; yubi
- Indonesia: kelapa
- Italy: cocco
- Laos: phaawz
- Lesser Antilles: cocotier; noix de cocos
- Malaysia: kelapa
- Netherlands: Kokospalm
- Northern Mariana Islands: nizok
- Philippines: iniúg; lubi; niog; niyóg
- Sweden: Kokospalm
- Thailand: ma phrao
- Vietnam: dùa
- CCNNU (Cocos nucifera)
Summary of InvasivenessTop of page
C. nucifera is a palm tree with a great capacity for natural dispersal. The nuts have the capability to survive up to 120 days floating in the sea water and germinate when they make landfall. This dispersal trait facilitates the spreading of this species far from its origin without human assistance (Chan and Elevitch, 2006). Once established in new coastal areas, C. nucifera can grow forming dense monospecific thickets (Young et al., 2010). Humans have also actively introduced large numbers of coconut palms inland from the natural coastal habitat of the species, and nuts (fruits) can move up to 10 m from the mother tree when growing inland. In addition to its great dispersal ability, C. nucifera has high germination rates, and nuts have no dormancy and do not require special treatments to germinate, which are also elements facilitating its establishment and spread into new habitats (Duke, 1983; Chan and Elevitch, 2006).
Taxonomic TreeTop of page
- Domain: Eukaryota
- Kingdom: Plantae
- Phylum: Spermatophyta
- Subphylum: Angiospermae
- Class: Monocotyledonae
- Order: Arecales
- Family: Arecaceae
- Genus: Cocos
- Species: Cocos nucifera
Notes on Taxonomy and NomenclatureTop of page
The family Arecaceae includes 183 genera and 2361 species distributed mostly in humid tropical and subtropical regions of the world (Stevens, 2012). The species C. nucifera (coconut) has a number of commercial and traditional cultivars. Coconut palm contains tall cultivars, sometimes referred to as var. typica, as well as dwarf cultivars, sometimes referred to as var. nana (Griff.) Nar. Opinions about the origin of the dwarf differ. Aspects such as drought resistant, cold tolerant, seed size, shape and weight are important factors in the selection of new cultivars.
DescriptionTop of page
C. nucifera palms are unbranched, monoecious trees with smooth, columnar, light grey-brown trunk, usually 9-18 m height and sometimes taller (up to 30 m); dwarf selections also exist. Leaves pinnate, feather shaped, 4-7 m long and 1-1.5 m wide at the broadest part. Leaf stalks 1-2 cm in length and thorn-less. Inflorescence consists of female and male axillary flowers. Flowers are small and light yellow, in clusters that emerge from canoe-shaped sheaths among the leaves. Male flowers are small and more numerous. Female flowers 1 or fewer than male flowers; larger, spherical structures, about 25 mm in diameter. Fruit a drupe, roughly ovoid, up to 30 cm long and 20 cm wide, composed of a thick, fibrous husk surrounding a somewhat spherical nut with a hard, brittle, hairy shell. The fruit consists of (from the outside to in) a thin hard skin (exocarp), a thicker layer of fibrous mesocarp (husk), the hard endocarp (shell), the white endosperm (kernel), and a large cavity filled with watery liquid (coconut water or milk). The endosperm is soft and jellylike when immature but becomes firm with maturity. Coconut water or 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 (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009).
Plant TypeTop of page
DistributionTop of page
C. nucifera is native to coastal areas of Melanesia and South-East Asia, probably Malaysia, Indonesia (Moluccas Islands), Philippines and Papua New Guinea (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; USDA-ARS, 2014). The species is a common component of island and coastal ecosystems around the world, occurring in more than 80 countries across Asia, Africa, America and Oceania (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009; USDA-ARS, 2014).
Distribution TableTop of page
The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.Last updated: 21 Jul 2022
|Continent/Country/Region||Distribution||Last Reported||Origin||First Reported||Invasive||Planted||Reference||Notes|
|Central African Republic||Present||Introduced|
|Congo, Democratic Republic of the||Present||Introduced|
|British Indian Ocean Territory|
|China||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-Andaman and Nicobar Islands||Present||Introduced|
|Indonesia||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|Malaysia||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|Antigua and Barbuda||Present||Introduced|
|British Virgin Islands||Present||Introduced|
|Cuba||Present||Introduced||Listed as potentially invasive|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||Present||Introduced|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||Present||Introduced|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Present||Introduced|
|Turks and Caicos Islands||Present||Introduced|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||Present||Introduced|
|United States||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-Florida||Present||Introduced||Invasive Category II|
|Australia||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|Federated States of Micronesia||Present||Introduced|
|Northern Mariana Islands||Present||Introduced|
|Papua New Guinea||Present||Native|
|Wallis and Futuna||Present||Introduced|
|Brazil||Present||Present based on regional distribution.|
|-Fernando de Noronha||Present||Introduced|
|-Mato Grosso do Sul||Present||Introduced|
|-Rio de Janeiro||Present||Introduced|
|-Rio Grande do Norte||Present||Introduced|
|-Rio Grande do Sul||Present||Introduced|
History of Introduction and SpreadTop of page
In prehistoric times, wild forms of C. nucifera are believed to have been carried on oceanic currents to islands in the Pacific (Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia) and to coastal India, Sri Lanka, and islands in the India Ocean (i.e., Seychelles, Andaman, and Mauritius). It is also believed that Polynesians migrating into the Pacific 4500 years ago brought with them coconut palms. At about the same time, people from Indo-Malaysia were colonizing islands in Micronesia. About 3000 years ago, Malay and Arab traders spread improved coconut types to India, Sri Lanka and East Africa (Chan and Elevitch, 2006). During the sixteenth century, European explorers introduced C. nucifera into West Africa, the Atlantic Coast of America and the West Indies (Little and Skolmen, 2003; Chan and Elevitch, 2006). The arrival of Europeans in the Pacific islands in the nineteenth century signalled the international commercialization of this species and coconut oil was the first vegetable oil commercialized in world trade. During this period, large coconut plantations were established in European colonies around the world including India, the Philippines, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa (Duke, 1983; Chan and Elevitch, 2006; PROTA, 2014).
HabitatTop of page
C. nucifera grows on sandy beaches and coastal areas in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. This species has been introduced inland by humans and can be found planted and naturalized in gardens, parks, plantations, and along roadsides in areas with abundant sunlight, regular rainfall (1500 mm to 2500 mm annually) and high temperatures throughout the year (21°C to 30°C annually; Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009).
Habitat ListTop of page
|Terrestrial||Managed||Cultivated / agricultural land||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Managed forests, plantations and orchards||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Disturbed areas||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Rail / roadsides||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Terrestrial||Managed||Urban / peri-urban areas||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Littoral||Coastal areas||Present, no further details||Harmful (pest or invasive)|
|Littoral||Coastal areas||Present, no further details||Natural|
|Littoral||Coastal areas||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
|Littoral||Coastal dunes||Present, no further details||Harmful (pest or invasive)|
|Littoral||Coastal dunes||Present, no further details||Natural|
|Littoral||Coastal dunes||Present, no further details||Productive/non-natural|
Biology and EcologyTop of page
Growth and Development
Tall palms produce about 10 leaves during the first year, dwarf palms about 14. In subsequent years, more and ever-larger leaves are formed, until full leaf size is attained and annual production levels off at 12-16 leaves for tall and 20-22 leaves for dwarf palms. Since a leaf of a tall palm remains on the tree about 2.5 years after unfolding, the leaf number in the crown levels off at 30-35 after 6 or 7 years. The emerging 'spear' leaf replaces the eldest leaf which is about to fall; in this way the canopy reaches a steady state in respect of leaf area and leaf age. The spear leaf represents the midway-stage between initiation and fall, because the number of leaf initials still enfolded by the spear leaf is about equal to the number of unfolded leaves.
The numbers of adventitious roots are high: normally 2000-4000 per palm. Like the leaves, the roots are replaced in a regular fashion: new roots emerging from the trunk above the others take over from decaying roots. There are no data available on the rate of root replacement.
The steady state of both the canopy and the root system suggests that the coconut palm is built for a steady pace of growth in a constant environment. The large organs spend a long period in the pipeline – for example, about 2.5 years from initiation to unfolding for a leaf – and these long lead times give the palm a certain inflexibility. Under adverse conditions only flowering and fruiting pass through a series of phases during which the commitments can be adjusted downwards: reduced nut size and filling, premature nut fall, reduced fruit set, fewer pistillate flowers, smaller inflorescences and aborted inflorescences.
Thus stress affects yield much more than it affects growth. Growth can be slowed down, but the size of new leaves and roots has been fixed a long time in advance and cannot be adjusted to short-term stress periods. Inasmuch as leaf emergence slows down, this further reduces yield potential, as the emergence of the inflorescence follows the emergence of the subtending leaf.
At the rosette stage the growing point continues to enlarge until the size of the leaf initials reflects the prevailing growing conditions; then trunk formation starts. Widely spaced palms growing under favourable conditions are therefore larger than closely spaced palms or palms on poor sites. At close spacing, height growth is accelerated at the expense of flowering and fruiting.
Precocity and yield are positively correlated with annual leaf formation; hence dwarf palms yield earlier (first flowering about 2 years after germination against a minimum of 4 years for tall palms) and more than tall palms. Stem elongation begins before first flowering, but it is not clear what determines the end of the juvenile period.
Other Botanical Information
According to flowering, four categories of reproductive behaviour can be distinguished, ranging from strict allogamy (palms with short female phase without overlapping the male phase of the same or following inflorescences) to semi-direct autogamy (a long female phase overlapping the male phase of the same inflorescence as well as that of the following one). Although autogamy is possible in tall cultivars, these are usually cross-pollinating and heterogeneous. Dwarfs are usually self-pollinating and homogeneous. Pollination is by wind as well as by insects.
Coconuts can also be divided according to the shape of the nut: the Niu kafa type that evolved naturally (triangular nuts with a thick husk, thick shell and slow germination); and the Niu vai type that developed under cultivation (round nuts, thinner husk and shell, and early germination).
There are three dwarf-cultivar coconuts: the 'Niu Leka' from Fiji, differing from the tall only by its very short internodes and short rigid leaves; the medium-sized coconuts, such as the 'Malaysian Dwarf' from Indonesia, the 'Gangabondam' from India and the 'King' coconut from Sri Lanka; and the small dwarf cultivars that occur in various countries.
The 'Makapuno' from the Philippines and the 'Kelapa kopjor' from Indonesia are palms with nuts in which the endosperm almost fills the entire nut cavity. The endosperm is soft and has a peculiar taste, and is considered a delicacy. The nuts do not germinate but the embryos can be cultivated in vitro. This character may appear in any tall cultivar.
Coconut is essentially a crop of the humid tropics. It is fairly adaptable with regard to temperature and water supply, and so highly valued that it is still common near the limits of its ecological zone. The annual sunlight requirement is estimated at above 2000 hours, with maybe a lower limit of 120 hours per month. The optimum mean annual temperature is estimated at about 27°C, with an average diurnal variation between 5 and 7°C. For good nut yields, a minimum monthly mean of 20°C is required. Temperatures below 7°C may seriously damage young coconut palms, but varietal differences exist in low temperature tolerance.
Evenly-distributed rainfall above 2000 mm and a high relative humidity are preferred, but the leaves are designed to minimize water loss and can stand drought periods of several months. Hence groundwater (for example, on coastal plains) and irrigation can replace rains, but water shortage reduces yields.
The coconut palm thrives on a wide range of soils, from coarse sand to clay, provided the soils have adequate drainage and aeration, but does best on well-drained sandy soils. It tolerates alkaline soils with pH 8 and acid soils with pH 4.5 or higher. The species tolerates saline and infertile soils as well as salt-spray conditions (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009).
Latitude/Altitude RangesTop of page
|Latitude North (°N)||Latitude South (°S)||Altitude Lower (m)||Altitude Upper (m)|
Air TemperatureTop of page
|Parameter||Lower limit||Upper limit|
|Absolute minimum temperature (ºC)||0|
|Mean annual temperature (ºC)||22||35|
|Mean maximum temperature of hottest month (ºC)||30||38|
|Mean minimum temperature of coldest month (ºC)||4||12|
RainfallTop of page
|Parameter||Lower limit||Upper limit||Description|
|Dry season duration||0||4||number of consecutive months with <40 mm rainfall|
|Mean annual rainfall||1200||2300||mm; lower/upper limits|
Rainfall RegimeTop of page
Soil TolerancesTop of page
Special soil tolerances
Means of Movement and DispersalTop of page
C. nucifera spreads only by seeds. Seeds are dispersed by water, gravity and by people. Naturally, nuts reach new coastal areas floating in the sea water. Plants growing inland can disperse their nuts up to 10 metres just by gravity, however, the spreading of coconut plants inland is performed primarily by humans (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009).
Pathway CausesTop of page
|Crop production||Planted in plantations as overhead shade tree||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Disturbance||Planted in disturbed areas||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Food||Coconut||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Habitat restoration and improvement||Planted to stabilise coastal areas||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Hedges and windbreaks||One of the most wind tolerant plants in the world||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Horticulture||Nut kernels are used to feed animals||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Industrial purposes||Coconut oil||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Landscape improvement||Hotels in coastal areas||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Ornamental purposes||Mostly coastal areas||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|People foraging||Coconut kernel, coconut cream, coconut water, heart of the palm||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
|Timber trade||Stems are used for poles, sawn timber, roofing shingles, handcraft and furniture||Yes||Yes||Chan and Elevitch (2006)|
Pathway VectorsTop of page
Impact SummaryTop of page
|Cultural/amenity||Positive and negative|
|Economic/livelihood||Positive and negative|
|Environment (generally)||Positive and negative|
|Human health||Positive and negative|
Environmental ImpactTop of page
C. nucifera is considered one of the most successful plants colonizing new habitats. C. nucifera is a common component of many tropical and subtropical island and coastal ecosystems around the world (Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009; Young et al., 2010). In coastal areas where C. nucifera becomes dominant, it has been suggested that this species may have negative impacts on floristic, structural and soil characteristics of coastal native forests (Kairo et al., 2003; Young et al., 2010; Oviedo Prieto et al., 2012). For example, in the coastal forest of the Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Pacific, the high abundance of coconut plants has been associated with lower diversity of native plants and regenerating understory, lower abundance of major macronutrients and lower energy content of soil organic matter (Young et al., 2010).
Risk and Impact FactorsTop of page
- Proved invasive outside its native range
- Has a broad native range
- Abundant in its native range
- Highly adaptable to different environments
- Capable of securing and ingesting a wide range of food
- Highly mobile locally
- Benefits from human association (i.e. it is a human commensal)
- Long lived
- Fast growing
- Altered trophic level
- Damaged ecosystem services
- Ecosystem change/ habitat alteration
- Modification of nutrient regime
- Modification of successional patterns
- Monoculture formation
- Reduced native biodiversity
- Causes allergic responses
- Competition - smothering
- Pest and disease transmission
- Rapid growth
- Highly likely to be transported internationally deliberately
UsesTop of page
C. nucifera has been called the ‘tree of life’ or ‘tree of heaven’ because of its value as provider of so many useful products. This species provides food, water, oil, medicine, fibre, timber, and fuel for many people living on islands in the Pacific Ocean (Chan and Elevitch, 2006). High quality coconut oil is used for cooking or in the manufacture of margarine, shortening, filled milk and ice cream. Coconut oil is also processed into soap, detergents, cosmetics, shampoos, paints, varnishes and pharmaceutical products. Remnant fatty acids and alcohols and their methyl esters find application as components of emulsifiers and surfactants.
The press cake or copra meal is a good livestock feed. Coconut milk or cream pressed from the mix of freshly grated endosperm has been a traditional ingredient in many African and especially Asian food and bakery products. It is now also marketed in pasteurized and homogenized canned or powdered form. Water in the cavity of young coconuts is consumed as a cool and sweet-tasting, popular refreshment. It is now also commercially preserved without altering its typical flavour. The tender, jelly-like endosperm of young coconuts is a delicacy consumed directly or grated and mixed with food. The palm heart, which consists of the white, tender tissues of the youngest, unopened leaves at the stem apex, is also considered a delicacy.
The shell (endocarp) covering the seed can be made into household utensils and decorated pots, converted into shell charcoal (suitable for activation) or used as fuel. Finely ground coconut shell is used as filler for resin glues and moulding powders.
Green husks (mesocarp) are used for making ropes, carpets, mats and textiles. Brown coir from husks of mature fruits is used in brushes (long bristle fibres), mattresses, upholstery and particle board (short fibres), and as a soil/potting mix amendment.
A sweet sap containing about 15% sucrose is tapped from unopened inflorescences and is transformed into a light alcoholic wine when fermented. A by-product of palm wine is vinegar. Boiling fresh sap yields palm syrup and sugar. Distillation of palm wine yields a potent alcoholic beverage called ‘arak’.
The leaves are used to thatch roofs; the leaflets are plaited into mats, baskets, bags and hats; immature leaflets are made into traditional decorations and small bags or containers for food; the midribs of the leaflets are formed into brooms.
The wood of old palms is used for furniture, light constructions, household utensils and tool handles. The wood is very hard. It can be sawn with special tungsten carbide-tipped saw blades. It should be sawn when fresh. Preservative treatment of the sawn lumber is indispensable if it is to be used for building construction or any outdoor use.
Medicinal uses have also been attributed to coconut palm. The roots are considered antipyretic and diuretic. Milk of young coconut is diuretic, laxative and antidiarrheal. The oil is used to treat diseased skin and teeth.
Coconut palms have ornamental value and are often planted as ornamentals and windbreak plants in resorts, beaches, gardens and coastal parks. They are also planted as shade-trees in taro, cocoa and coffee plantations (Duke, 1983; Chan and Elevitch, 2006; Orwa et al., 2009; PROTA, 2014).
Uses ListTop of page
Animal feed, fodder, forage
- Fodder/animal feed
- Boundary, barrier or support
- Erosion control or dune stabilization
- Landscape improvement
- Sociocultural value
Human food and beverage
- Beverage base
- Food additive
- Carved material
- Essential oils
- Miscellaneous materials
- Source of medicine/pharmaceutical
Wood ProductsTop of page
- Building poles
- Transmission poles
Sawn or hewn building timbers
- Carpentry/joinery (exterior/interior)
- For light construction
- Laminated veneer lumber
- Laminated wood
- Industrial and domestic woodware
- Tool handles
- Wood carvings
BibliographyTop of page
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ReferencesTop of page
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ContributorsTop of page
22/04/14 Updated by:
Julissa Rojas-Sandoval, Department of Botany-Smithsonian NMNH, Washington DC, USA
Pedro Acevedo-Rodríguez, Department of Botany-Smithsonian NMNH, Washington DC, USA
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