Food security

Coconuts: Trees that keep on giving

Thinking about coconut, one image that comes to mind is lounging on a warm, sunny beach. Cool, sweet water from a freshly opened coconut, garnished with an orchid flower and a little paper umbrella is a beach tradition. And, this is a delightful thought about coconut, but this is a tree, and crop, that keeps on giving!

Coconut palms are mainly found growing along shorelines or in plantations in many tropical and warm subtropical regions. The coconut tree is very resilient and can grow in a variety of soil conditions (including saline soil conditions as found near oceans). With many varieties and cultivars of coconut present, they can be grouped into either tall or dwarf varieties.

Coconut bunch in tree
Coconuts grow on bunches high up in the trees. They are only one part of this tree that is useful. Credit: Nall I. Moonilall

Tall varieties, as their names suggest, can grow up to about 90 feet at full maturity. These varieties are cross-pollinated and usually have diverse variations. Dwarf varieties, on the other hand, are much shorter and reach heights close to about 40 feet. Dwarf varieties have more specific growing conditions and can have a greater susceptibility to disease.

In terms of agronomic production, tall varieties account for about most all coconuts grown – dwarf varieties account for roughly 5 percent. Tall coconut palms have a long economic life, usually producing fruit between 60-80 years, while dwarf species’ is 50-60 years. Dwarf varieties are smaller in stature, with less leaf spread, they can be planted closer together. This results in a higher planting density per area of land, and more coconuts per acre. Dwarf varieties start to produce fruit sooner as well. A dwarf species can start to produce fruit around 3 years after planting, with full marketable production around year 9. Tall varieties usually start production 6-8 years after being planted.

Globally, the coconut market is estimated to be worth about $35.8 billion. In 2018, global coconut production was around 67 million tons. Indonesia, the Philippines, and India lead global production and account for about most coconuts produced. The coconut is one of the most useful and beneficial agronomic crops in the world. Almost every part of the coconut palm can be used to make a consumable product. Let us look at how:


The kernel is the meat of the coconut and is usually used as food. The kernel found within the inner shell can be eaten right away when fresh. Otherwise, it can be dried and grated. The coconut kernel is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The kernel can be used to make coconut milk (soak and squeeze grated coconut kernel in water). Coconut milk is added to culinary dishes and haircare products. It is also dried and added to many dessert dishes, or even ground finely into coconut flour.

split coconut
Fruit production will experience challenges in the future such as global climate change. Sustaining fruit production will require advancements in the agronomy sector, especially in the tropics. Depicted here is a sprouted coconut split down the middle to expose its flesh, water, and fruit, all of which are readily edible. Credit: Nall I. Moonilall


Coconut water is found within the hard shell of the coconut. This liquid has a sweet taste and can be consumed directly or added to other foods or drinks. It is naturally high in potassium – more than a banana!


Coconut oil is extracted from dried kernels. This creates a substance called copra, from which the oil is extracted. Aside from being used in cooking, the oil can be found in many creams, skin moisturizers, and haircare products.


The hard shell of a mature coconut is used in many places across the world to make bowls. Additionally, the shell can be used to make different crafts and home decor ornaments. The shell can be used as a direct fuel source for outdoor cooking or can be converted to charcoal for multiple other purposes.


Coconut husk is the portion of the fruit that surrounds the hard shell. When the husk is dried, it can be transformed into different natural products like ropes, brushes, rugs, carpets, and scrubbers. Byproducts from husking coconuts include fiber and coir materials that can be used as an alternative potting medium within horticulture. The coir and fiber material can be mixed in with potting soil or used entirely as a soilless growing media. Coconut coir and fiber can be a great alternative to a peat-based growing substrate.


Palm fronds can be dried and used to create thatch roofing or fencing. The leaves of the frond can be used to make bowls, mats, and baskets or weaved together to created other pieces of artwork. The midrib of the leaf can be dried and tied together to make brooms. Fresh leaves can be used as filler material within floral and horticultural arrangements.

palm broom
Many parts of the coconut tree can be used to create useful products. The palm fronds are often used to make brooms. Credit: Nall I. Moonilall


The trunk of the coconut tree can be used as an inexpensive wood for building materials and furniture. The wood from coconut palms can be used as a source of fuel for outdoor cooking, as well.

Flowers and roots

Coconut flowers produce a sap that can be used to make syrup. If the syrup is fermented long enough, it creates alcohol or vinegar. The roots are used to make dye and are highly valued for their medicinal use within indigenous cultures.

With the many products resulting from some part of the coconut palm, it is no wonder this crop is of great global importance. With greater demands for coconuts projected in the near future, more coconut producing countries will increase the scale of production in this decade. New cultivars, better management practices, and more research will help make this necessary production increase a reality. The coconut palm’s gifts are a sustainable source of many products.

Answered by Nall I. Moonilall, The Ohio State University

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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