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Coconut Tree Tips: Growing A Coconut Palm

It’s safe to say you’ve probably heard of coconut coir, and you’ve enjoyed the delectable dried and sugared shavings of coconut. But have you ever considered growing a coconut tree yourself? Not only can you harvest the delicious flesh of a tropical coconut in the right climate, but you can also use the fibrous fruit coat in soil mixes too. 

So much can be done with coconuts and the coconut palm that it might as well be the signature feature of the tropics. The coconut fruit is commonly used in cooking, and mature coconuts contain hydrating coconut water. But there’s so much mystery surrounding coconut cultivation. That’s pretty incredible when you consider coconut fruits are the most widely used nut in the world. 

You may think, “I can’t grow coconut palm. I live in Maine.” But that’s not exactly true! And what’s more, is you may not need as much space to grow a coconut palm tree in northern USDA zones as you would in the tropics. How is this possible? Read on, and let’s explore the wondrous Cocos nucifera

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Quick Care Guide

Coconut tree
The coconut tree is a lovely tropical palm. Source: zbigphotography
Common Name(s)Coco, coconut, coconut palm
Scientific NameCocos nucifera
Days to HarvestAt least 6 years
LightFull sun
Water1 inch per week
SoilLoamy, sandy, well-drained soil
FertilizerHigh nitrogen granular, every 3-4 months
PestsMealybugs, coconut scale
DiseasesLethal yellowing

All About The Coconut Tree

Coconut palm frond
Coconut fronds are quite pretty, but may have sharp edges on leaf blades. Source: fossiled

The scientific name of coconut palms is Cocos nucifera, known commonly as coconut, coconut palm, and the succinct coco. It was first cultivated by Austronesian people in the neolithic era about 12,000 years ago. Austronesia encompasses a wide array of peoples and places in the Pacific Islands, all the way to Madagascar. It was in these vastly different cultures coconut was central to the way of life there, and still is in many regions. 

Coconut palms are very large in their natural environment, growing up to 100 feet tall. Like other palms, the pinnate leaves break away from a central smooth trunk as the coco grows. In the right conditions, coconut palms produce fruit in the first 6 to 10 years of their lives. Although the fruit is considered a nut, it’s a drupe or stone fruit. Coconut palm cocos are closer in likeness to peaches or plums than they are to pecans. 

In 15 to 20 years, healthy coconut palms reach peak production and produce up to 50 fruits annually. The fruits are multilayered and are either extracted from the top of the plant or collected after they fall to the earth. Some fall into the ocean and disperse significant distances. Coconut palms have shallow fibrous roots that thrive in moist, sandy soils. They produce male and female flowers on the same inflorescence throughout their lives and self-pollinate. The flowers are yellow and puffy, surrounding young fruit yet to ripen. 

Coconut is the most important commercial nut crop in the world. Not only do people across the world center their lives around coconut palms, but the economies of coconut-producing countries benefit greatly from coconut production.

People in tropical environments are primed to grow a coconut palm, but those in other regions can enjoy coconut as well in controlled environments. In areas where it’s way too cold, coconut palm can stand in the home as a lovely palmate houseplant. Container-grown palms may not produce fruit, but they are still unique and vibrant plants you can enjoy!

Types of Coconut

Although a common coconut palm can get up to 100 feet tall, there are different varieties out there that reach lesser heights. Dwarf varieties grow anywhere from 16 to 30 feet tall. Semi-dwarf coconut palms reach the higher of the dwarf heights. Standard palms are those we’ve discussed in the previous section. 

One standard, fast-growing variety called Jamaican Tall has a crooked, wide trunk and is well adapted to the tropical environment of South Florida. Another variety, called Malayan Dwarf, is slower-growing but doesn’t get as tall. This palm produces three different flower and fruit cultivars that come in green, gold, or yellow.  

Recently work has been done to breed coconut palm trees to encourage resistance to the disease, lethal yellowing (LY). Malayan Dwarf has shown significant resistance to LY, making it a great dwarf variety for people in tropical areas of North America. Another of the dwarf cultivars with resistance to LY is Fiji Dwarf, which is best grown in isolation from other palms in Latin America. 

Maypan coco palm is a hybrid of a tall variety of coco that was cultivated in Jamaica to combat LY. The young coco on this palm is green, and the trunk is slightly crooked. It’s also suited to cooler areas on the Atlantic coasts of Florida. People in colder areas of the world grow almost any variety indoors for ornamental purposes too. Growth stunts here, making it easy to contain what would be a massive plant in its native region.

Planting

Coconut seedlings
Nursery-raised coconut seedlings emerge from their seed husks. Source: tmmtx76

The best time to plant coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is in the warm, wet summer months. However, coco transplants are alright at any time of year. Transplant young palm coco in 12 inches of soil. If you’re planting in the ground, know that coco palm is native to the Pacific Coast, South America, and other countries with tropical climates. Do not plant coco outdoors unless you live in a place where annual rainfall is about 60 inches annually, and relative humidity is 70 to 80%. Otherwise, cultivate them in a greenhouse. 

Coastal areas are great for these plants, and cold weather should be avoided at all costs. Likewise, even tall cultivars don’t do well in intense winds. Shelter them from these elements. Since the root system is shallow, plant your tree in sandy, loamy, well-drained soil and allow it to root. They’ll take off pretty quickly with the right conditions. For in-ground plants, prepare a hole that is 2 to 3 feet wide, and 1 to 3 feet deep.

Coco palm roots should be planted just an inch or two below the soil surface. For container-grown coco, a pot that is 3 gallons in volume and at least 12 inches deep is best. For those grown in the earth in coastal areas where the climate conditions and ocean currents are right, construct beds that are multiple feet high and wide, which promotes the drainage away from the roots. Coco roots are sensitive to rot in low-lying areas. Space in-ground coconuts at least 100 feet apart to prevent overcrowding.

Care

Inner coconut
Sprouts emerge from the “eyes” of the inner coconut shell. Source: tree-species

Let’s discuss all the necessities related to growing coconuts. Care for them properly, and you’ll have that lovely fresh coconut meat when your palms are at optimal production. 

Sun and Temperature

Because coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) thrives in the tropics, it needs full direct sun for at least 6 hours per day. Coco has a relatively small hardiness area – zones 10 through 12 – making coconuts a common occurrence today in South Florida, and for a long time for Caribbean native inhabitants. These zones are the only ones in USDA purview that have adequate amounts of heat. 

Coconut palms are extremely sensitive to cold. They take on damage at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At continuous temperatures of 30 degrees, coconut palms will surely die. That’s why it’s so important to ensure your coconuts have the right temperature conditions. As long as humidity is at least 70%, coconuts can take quite a bit of heat. Dry heat is not good for them, though. If proper humidity is not present, fruit drop can occur. 

Water and Humidity

Water your coconut palms in the morning around the base of the trunk until the top two inches of soil is adequately moist. It’s hard to overwater a coconut palm, but note they do not like to be flooded. Give your plant in a container or the ground at least one inch of water per week. As long as your soil type is right, and good drainage is present, you can water in any format. In areas where palms are grown commercially, for their coconut meat, they are watered by drip irrigation with liters at a time every few days. In drier areas, water more frequently. 

The only time to pull back on watering your coco is when there is a significant amount of rain and humidity in the summer. 

Soil

Coconuts subsist in sandy soil or rocky ground that is loamy. Well-draining soil is a must. They can subsist in poor soil, but they won’t produce as many delicious coconuts in those conditions. They have a wide pH range for growing, from acidic (5) to slightly alkaline (8). If you’re planting a whole coconut palm in a container, give it a good palm soil mix. This will have the right balance of planting media needed to grow them. If you want to make your own palm soil, combine 2 parts potting soil, 2 parts manure or compost, and 1 part sand. This also works as a preparation for planting these palm shade trees in the ground. 

Fertilizing

Ripe coconuts require regular fertilizer. Palms enjoy a wide array of macro and micronutrients, and thankfully there are several “palm special” fertilizers out there. These contain an NPK of 8-2-12, with added magnesium, boron, and other micronutrients. They also come in a slow-release pellet form. Spread this under the canopy, at a ratio of 1.5lbs per 100 square feet of canopy. Of course, this will be greatly reduced for container growing, at under a cup per container. Apply this fertilizer every one to three months when the weather remains dry for at least 24 hours. 

Pruning

Coconut palms are not deciduous, and only drop leaves as a part of their normal cycles. Therefore, they are green most of the year, barring improper nutrients or growing conditions. They don’t need pruning but benefit from the removal of old yellowing leaves once per year. In the taller varieties of South Florida, people climb ladders to remove old fronds. Early Polynesian voyagers pruned them by tying a sash tightly around their ankles which helped them compress their feet around the trunk to climb it. This method is not recommended for those who don’t have experience. 

Propagation

The only propagation mode is seed. When the coconuts themselves make a sloshing sound, the seed can be planted. Place it on its side with the three eyes angled very slightly upward, and bury it with sand to about half the thickness of the hard shell of coconut. Maintain high humidity and temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in full sunlight. Germination will occur, and at 6 months young palms can be transplanted. 

Harvesting and Storing

Halved coconuts
Inside the coconut husk is an inner shell that contains the meat and water. Source: avinashbhat

This is probably the coolest part about a coco plant: getting to that sweet sweet solid endosperm that is coconut meat. There are so many more uses for coco than that though. 

Harvesting

Once a coco plant is at full maturity and begins to produce fruit, harvest mature fruit right away or up to 12 months after first maturity. A plant grown for coco water or coconut milk should be harvested at most 7 months after maturity. Green coconuts (immature coconuts) can be harvested when they reach the desired size. Those harvested for coconut flesh need to be fully ripe before they can be harvested. You’ll know a coco is mature when the water-filled nut emits a slosh when rocked. 

As mentioned above, harvest coconuts with a large sharp knife on a ladder for taller plants. You can also use a knife attached to a long pole if climbing up isn’t your style. Cut at the base of the stalk of the lowest nuts, and let them drop below. Or put them in a basket or other receptacle. There are some different ways to process products depending on the coconut products you’d like to use. Trim young coconuts with a sharp knife to enjoy their fruit and water. For fully mature nuts, trim the husk with a very sharp knife. Use a knife to dig into the vulnerable eye for coco meat, water, and generally the inside of the coconut. 

Storing

From here, separate the husk and process it into coconut coir for gardening, rope, or matting. Alternately, crack open the nuts, and dry them in the oven for 10 minutes at 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Then blend the meat in filtered water, and strain the flesh from the liquid. Heat the resulting liquid in a pan on low for 1 to 2 hours. Remove the remaining solids and strain coconut oil into an airtight container. Store the coconut oil in the refrigerator for up to five years. 

Fresh coco meat lasts for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Opened and processed, they’ll keep in the fridge for 1 week. Roasted, shredded coconut lasts for 2 to 3 months in the refrigerator. In each of these states, they’ll keep in the freezer for up to 8 months.  

Troubleshooting

Coconuts on tree
Coconuts hang heavy on this loaded tree. Source: J Fortune

Although coconut is a pretty laid-back plant, it does need some attention in non-native regions (for instance, in the US, outside of South Florida). There are a few things you’ll commonly come into contact with, so let’s cover those. 

Growing Problems

One of the main issues coco growers deal with is nutrient deficiencies. These present in the form of yellowing leaves, and blossom or fruit drop. Simply add palm fertilizer in the case of nutrient deficiency. Consult the Fertilizer heading above to determine what type to use. 

If it’s too cold, coco takes on damage, or at worst, dies. Keep it in humid, hot, direct sunlight. If it’s not humid enough, growth will slow on your plant. If you live somewhere a coco wouldn’t get enough light from the surrounding environment, give the palm a grow light.

Coco doesn’t appreciate flooding for long. If your plant experiences flooding for more than a few days, it could experience root rot. Add sand to the soil or transplant it if the area you planted it in is prone to flooding. 

Pests

There are quite a few coco pests to look out for. Here, we’ll cover just two prominent pests. Mealybugs look like small cotton-ball insects that excrete a sweet liquid called honey dew on coco fronts and fruit. On smaller trees, wipe them away with a clean cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol. On larger trees, apply spray insecticidal soap or neem oil every 7 to 10 days. Pyrethrin is a good option for larger infestations. 

Coconut scale looks like a white scaly fungus, but is actually flattened insects that congregate on all parts of coco plants. These insects suck sap from the parts of the plant where they exist. Damaged parts of the plant can be removed to prevent spread, and the rubbing alcohol trick works well for small area issues as well. In larger infestations, horticultural oil, neem oil, or azadirachtin sprays can be applied once every 7 to 10 days.

Leafhoppers are common to find on coconut, but usually don’t do lasting damage to the tree themselves. Unfortunately, they can be a vector for diseases, which we’ll go into in just a moment. Neem oil, insecticidal soap, or pyrethrin are effective treatment measures for leafhopper pests.

Diseases

Lethal yellowing (LY) is one of the most prominent diseases coco plants experience. Leaves drop from the fronds, fruits drop, and flowers drop too when LY is present. In the late stages of this phytoplasmic disease transferred by leaf hoppers, the entire crown turns yellow. The only way to prevent LY is to plant varieties that are naturally resistant. In extreme cases, antibiotics can be administered, but often this proves unsuccessful. In this case, remove the entire plant and dispose of it in the trash. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the difference between a coconut tree and a palm tree?

A: Coco is in the palm family, but produces the delectable nut that so many people love. 

Q: Where do coconut trees grow?

A: Coconut trees grow in sunny, hot coastal climates. 

Q: Can I grow a coconut tree?

A: Absolutely! With the right know-how, you’ll be able to at least grow a lovely houseplant. In the right conditions, you can enjoy coconuts after many years.


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