The coconut is widespread throughout the tropics, typically being found along sandy shorelines. This tree has been spread largely by man, but also by natural means. The fruit can float for long distances and still germinate to form new trees after being washed ashore.
Commercial plantings are confined to the tropical lowlands, but the tree will also fruit in a few warmer subtropical areas. In Florida the coconut palm is successfully grown from Stuart on the east coast and Punta Gorda on the west coast, south to Key West.
Tree. This large, single-trunked palm has a smooth, columnar trunk with a light grayish-brown color; the trunk is topped with a terminal crown of leaves. Tall varieties may attain a height of 80–100 feet (24–31 m), while dwarf varieties are shorter in stature. The trunk is slender and often swollen at the base. The trunk is typically curved or leaning, but is erect in some cultivars.
Leaves. The pinnate leaves are feather-shaped, up to 18 feet (5.5 m) long and 4 feet (1.2 m) wide. The leaf stalks are 3–5 feet (0.9–1.5 m) in length and spineless.
Flowers. Male and female flowers are borne on the same inflorescence. The inflorescences emerge from canoe-shaped sheaths among the leaves and may be 2–3 feet (0.6–0.9 m) long and have 10–50 branchlets. Male flowers are small, light yellow, and are found at the ends of the branchlets. Female flowers are larger than male flowers, light yellow in color, and are found towards the base of the branchlets. Coconut palms begin to flower at about 4–6 years of age.
Fruit. Roughly ovoid, up to 15 inches (38 cm) long and 12 inches (30 cm) wide, composed of a thick, fibrous husk surrounding a somewhat spherical nut with a hard, brittle, hairy shell. The nut is 6–8 inches (15–20 cm) in diameter and 10–12 inches (25–30 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, about one inch thick at maturity. This layer is known as the "meat" or copra. The interior of the nut is hollow, but partially filled with a watery liquid called "coconut milk". The meat is soft and jelly-like when immature, but it becomes firm at maturity. Coconut milk is abundant in unripe fruits, but the coconut milk is gradually absorbed as ripening proceeds. The fruits are green at first, turning brownish as they mature. Yellow-fruit varieties change from yellow to brown as they mature.
Drought: Coconut palms are tolerant of dry soil conditions. However, for optimum fruit production and quality, regular irrigation is recommended during dry periods.
Flooding: Coconut palms are tolerant of waterlogged or flooded soil conditions for a few days. However, trees may decline and die when exposed to prolonged flooding or waterlogged soils.
Cold temperatures: Coconut palms will be injured and may be killed by temperatures below 32°F (0°C) and may show chilling injury symptoms of leaflet necrosis at temperatures as high as 40°F (5°C). Prolonged exposure to non-freezing temperatures in the low to mid 30s°F can result in permanent trunk damage and even death of the palm. More severe freezes can also result in death of the bud. Research has shown that the severity of cold injury is greatly reduced for these palms when they have been properly fertilized.
Wind: Coconut palms are quite tolerant of windy sites and generally survive hurricane-force winds. The most common damage from hurricane winds is loss of leaves and toppling over. If uprooted palms are righted promptly and adequately watered, survival of these palms is usually quite good.
Salt: Coconut palms are tolerant of saline water and soils, as well as salt spray.