Is there anything symbolically more tropical than a coconut? Not really. But there is confusion surrounding what a coconut is. It has the word “nut” in its name, meaning it is a nut. Or is it a fruit? Or perhaps it is something else entirely?
Coconut is a specific type of fruit called “drupe”. Like most drupes, a coconut has three distinct layers protecting the plant’s seeds. Since they are the seed-bearing part of the plant, a coconut is not a vegetable. Likewise, coconuts are not true nuts as they open up at maturity.
Since coconut is something everybody likes and has a large range of use, it is important to clarify its origin. In this article, we will explain what a coconut is and what kind of tree it is.
What Is a Coconut?
When people use the term “coconut”, they usually refer to the partially edible fruit of the coconut tree, which is a species of palm tree. These trees are ever present in tropical regions, so much so that they are synonymous with the word “tropical”.
Now, when you want to classify a coconut, things start to get a bit confusing. This is because the actual scientific classification of plants and the way the general public classifies them are not always similar. Coconuts are an ideal example of such dissonance.
Contrary to what its name suggests, a coconut is not a nut. It is also not a vegetable or seed. It is the fruit of the coconut tree.
A fruit, by definition, is the seed-bearing structure of a plant that develops from the plant’s ovaries. When fertilization occurs in flower (a plant’s reproductive organ), the entire flower transforms into a vessel containing the seed (fertilized ovum), usually along with other parts surrounding the flower. This entire structure or vessel is what we call a fruit.
And by this definition, a coconut is most certainly a fruit. It contains the seed of the plant (the white flesh). It develops from the ovaries and surrounding parts. And when it matures, the seed is released, and a new plant sprouts from it.
If you want to get even more technical, a coconut is a “drupe”. A drupe is a fruit defined as having a fleshy outer coat and a hard inner shell containing the seed. Thanks to this hard shell, these fruits are also referred to as stone fruits. Apricots, peaches, and plums are some well-known examples of stone fruits.
And while coconuts may not look like it on the surface, they are more related to peaches than almonds and cashews.
Like a typical drupe, a coconut has three distinct layers. The greenish outer layer is the exocarp. Inside, you have a fleshy, fibrous layer, which is the mesocarp. Finally, you will find a hard shell when you strip away the mesocarp. This is the endocarp, and it is this part that contains the seed of the plant.
The coconut with its exocarp intact is often called a “green coconut”. And a green coconut looks so different from a coconut without its exocarp that some may mistake them for two different things. But they are not. And when you examine a coconut layer-by-layer, the nature of this fruit becomes clearer.
When you cut open the endocarp of a ripe coconut, you will be met with a white, fleshy substance. This is the endosperm of the coconut that remains inside the seed. If allowed to grow, a brand new coconut tree will sprout from this endosperm and come out of the three holes on the outer shell.
Is Coconut a Fruit or a Seed?
A seed is like a baby tree. A single seed has the potential to develop into a fully-fledged plant. But this seed is a delicate thing. So, it needs to be protected. And the way most plants protect their seeds is by storing them inside a fruit. So, a fruit is a container for the seeds until it is time for them to mature.
By these definitions, a coconut falls under the category of fruit. The seed of the palm tree is safely contained inside the fruit.
Now, unlike most common fruits, the fleshy part of a coconut is inedible. But this does not make it any less of fruit. Since it is a drupe, there are three layers until you reach the seed. The outer skin of the seed is firmly attached to the endocarp.
The endocarp also has three holes close together, which are germination pores. As a new plant sprouts, it shoots out of these holes. So, a coconut is a type of fruit that houses the plant’s seed.
Why Is Coconut Not a Nut?
So, coconuts are the fruits of the coconut tree. And nuts are also a type of fruit. But technically speaking, a coconut is not a nut. Rather it is another variety of fruit called “drupe”.
The definition of a true nut is that it is a fruit with a hard shell containing a single seed. So, think of an acorn. It has a hard outer shell that houses and protects a single seed. This is why you can call an acorn a tree nut.
Now, if you only look at it from the seeds and hard shell, you can put coconuts into the true nuts category. After all, it has a hard shell containing a single seed.
But those are not the only parts of a coconut. Coconut is more similar to a drupe or stone fruit, which has an outer exocarp layer, a fleshy mesocarp layer, and an inner endocarp layer. This inner layer is very hard, almost like a stone. Hence, these fruits are called “stone fruits.”
A coconut has all three of these layers. And the innermost layer or endocarp contains the seed from which a new coconut tree can blossom. So, despite sharing the name and some characteristics, a coconut is a stone fruit, not a true nut.
Why Is Coconut Not a Vegetable?
The exact line separating fruits and vegetables can get very confusing. This is because the scientific definitions for these terms do not always in line with everyday use.
A fruit is the part of a plant that contains the seed. It typically develops from the ovaries of that tree’s flower. Not every flowering plant bears fruit. But those that do are called fruit trees.
Apart from the fruit, all other parts of a plant can be considered a vegetable, provided they are edible. So, a plant’s stems, roots, leaves, and other accessory elements can qualify as a vegetable. But if the part in question contains the seeds of that plant, then they qualify as fruits.
And by this definition, coconuts are clearly fruits, not vegetables. They develop from the flowers of coconut trees and store a single seed.
Now, in the culinary world, many fruits and vegetables get mixed together. A very good example of this would be tomatoes. Tomatoes are the fruits of the tomato plants, as they contain the seeds of said plant. But because tomatoes are savory rather than sweet, many people will use them as vegetables.
This is not the case with coconuts, however. Thanks to its sweet juice and equally sweet white flesh (which is also called “corpa”), most people use coconuts as a fruit in dishes.
Why Is Coconut Not a Berry?
In botanical terminology, a berry is a type of fruit with a fleshy, pulpy exterior surrounding the seed. No part of the fruit is hard except the seed. Berries are usually very small and rounded. They typically contain plenty of juice for their size. Cherry, raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry are good examples of typical berry fruits.
In contrast, a drupe or a stone fruit is a fruit that contains its seed in a hard shell called an endocarp. They also possess a fleshy middle layer, which may or may not be edible. And they have an outer, usually fibrous layer called the exocarp.
Coconut is very clearly not a berry. It does not have a pulpy exterior, nor is it small or particularly rounded. Rather it has the three distinct layers that are typical of stone fruit. So, coconuts are not berries. They are drupes.
Is a Coconut Tree a Fruit Tree?
As the name suggests, a fruit tree is any tree that bears fruits. Botanically, all flowering plants can bear fruits, as fruits are the ripened ovaries inside the flowers. When fertilization occurs, the ovaries and some surrounding parts of the flower develop into a fruit.
By this definition, a coconut tree is indeed a fruit tree. The coconuts we see and consume are the fruits of the coconut tree. Once matured, the seed inside the coconut can sprout into a brand new plant.
In terms of horticulture, fruit trees are those that are cultivated for food and medicinal purposes for humans. And even by this more limited classification, a coconut tree is a fruit tree. People cultivate coconut trees not just for their delicious water but also for their sweet flesh.
What Type of Tree Is Coconut?
Coconut trees are, in fact, a type of palm tree. There are several species of palm trees that you can find decorating tropical islands and nations. But out of all of them, only a specific species, the Cocos nucifera, is the one that bears the coconuts we know and love.
Why Does a Coconut Have No Seeds?
Coconuts do have seeds. Coconuts have one of the largest seeds in the plant kingdom. But they are not as easily visible to the naked eye. You need to go very deep to see the actual seed.
Some might think that the brown-colored, hard shell inside the green coconut is the seed. But that is just the endocarp. Once you pry open that, you will be met with a white, fleshy substance. This is the seed of the plant.