All coconut trees are palm trees, but not all palm trees are coconut trees. Date palms, royal palms, and fan palms are all examples of palm trees. The Palm family is known as Arecaceae. Coconut trees are a species of the genus Cocos, which is a genus of the Arecaceae family.
Let’s dive in further to discuss what this all means.
Breakdown of Palm Trees and Coconut Trees
Every plant that is a palm is from the Arecaceae family. Within the Arecaceae family, there are several genera. Some of the genera with the palm family include Bismarckia, Borassus, Calamus, and, the genus we’re discussing here, Coco.
Within each Arecaceae genus, there are various numbers of species, making up roughly 2,400 total palm species on the planet. The Cocos nucifera, or coconut tree, is the only species within the Coco genus.
That means the coconut tree is only a tiny 0.0005% of the entire Arecaceae family.
You can already see how vastly different the coconut tree is from the rest of the palms in existence.
Telling a Coconut Tree and Palm Tree Apart
Because all coconut trees are palm trees, it’s only necessary to be able to distinguish a coconut tree from the rest of the family. Luckily, there are several physical characteristics you can look for.
Presence of Coconuts
This is the most obvious clue a palm is a coconut tree. If you look up and see coconuts growing, you’re looking at a coconut tree.
With that being said, it’s important to keep in mind that coconuts look and function differently at various stages of growth. A coconut that is green is in the early stages of growth. This is also the time when “coconut water” fills the interior endocarp. When a coconut matures, it turns brown and the water inside begins to harden, producing coconut flesh.
Regardless of the age or color of the coconuts, they all come from the same species.
Did You Know?
Most palm species produce fruit, though they aren’t all edible for human consumption. Palms are angiosperms which are flowering plants that evolved from ferns over 100 million years ago.
Inspect Coconut Leaves
It takes years for a coconut tree to grow and start developing fruit, so spotting coconuts might not be so easy. This is where the leaves can help.
The first thing to look at is how the leaves are actually attached to the trunk.
Coconut tree leaves grow directly out of the trunk, while other palm trees, like the Roystonea genus, have a crownshaft extension at the base of the leaves. The crownshaft on these palms is often a different color than the actual trunk as well.
Once you see how the leaves are attached, it’s time to look at the actual leaves themselves.
Coconut tree fronds are pinnate and have leaflets attached symmetrically along one long stem, known as the rachi. Each rachi with leaflets can grow between 2 and 3 feet long.
Seeing this doesn’t immediately signal a coconut tree, but it does rule out palm trees like the Livistona and Washingtonia genera, which have leaves in a fan shape along one central point.
Next, look at the actual leaves themselves. Coconut tree leaves are shaped like feathers with a pointed tip along the rachi. You might even think they look like giant blades of grass, which makes sense since both palms and grasses are monocots. Leaves are bright green when young and darker green as they mature, with a smooth texture.
Check the Trunk
If you still are unable to determine a coconut tree, check the trunk. Coconut tree trunks have a smooth feel to them, while other species, like those in the Phoenix genus (date palms), have a much rougher feel to them.
Beyond just feel, coconut trees generally grow straight up, between 60 and 100 feet tall, with trunks between 1 and 2 feet wide. Other palm trees are much shorter, like those in the Beccariophoenix genus, which have a similar pinnate leaf profile to coconut trees.
Are Coconut and Palm Trees Really Trees?
Coconut and palm trees are trees, but the term “tree” is not an actual scientific taxonomy.
A tree is simply a perennial plant that has developed a trunk that supports various structures of branches and foliage. The family lineage of different trees is why they aren’t grouped into one taxonomy.
Let’s explore this deeper as it relates to coconut and palm trees.
No matter where you live, there’s a good chance you can go outside and spot a tree somewhere.
Let’s hypothetically say you are in the Pacific Northwest, where trees like the Douglas Fir are common, or the Midwest where various spruces and pines grow. Like the coconut and palm trees, we consider firs, spruces, and pines to be trees as well.
Here’s where things get interesting.
All of these “trees” have evolved from ferns, which have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Over time, ferns developed into two groups based on how they reproduce, gymnosperms and angiosperms.
All of the trees mentioned in our example (firs, spruces, and pines) are gymnosperms, which means their seeds develop within a cone. Angiosperms, like coconut and palm trees, develop their seeds within a fruit.
The difference in reproduction is an important characteristic in how we look at plants. All flowering plants are angiosperms which means a coconut tree is actually more similar to a begonia than it is to a spruce tree.
So as you can see, while all of these examples are considered trees, it’s impossible to group them all into one taxonomy.
What are the Differences Between Coconut and Palm Trees?
Coconut trees are within the palm family, which also has other palm tree species. The easiest way to determine a coconut tree from other palm trees is to look for the following:
- A prescence of coconuts growing near the top of the tree.
- Pinnate leaflets on a rachi growing diretly out of the trunk, without a crownshaft.
- Smooth trunk with considerable height.
Next time you’re somewhere with palm trees around, see if you can start seeing these differences.