The short answer is that a coconut is a fruit. Coconut is a type of fruit called a drupe.
In botanical terms, a fruit is defined as “The ripened ovary of a seed plant. Fruits are the means by which flowering plants disseminate seeds.” A coconut definitely falls within this definition because it contains seeds and it ripens to spread those seeds.
However, because it comforts vegetables in how it is used and its characteristics, the United States Department of Agriculture classifies coconuts as vegetables for culinary purposes.
So even though they are fruits from the plant kingdom, coconuts fall under the broader category of what Americans know to be vegetables.
Coconut trees can grow up to 100 feet tall and their trunks maybe 30 inches in diameter, sometimes more. If you include coconuts from multiple trees, approximately 40 million coconuts are harvested each year from over 60 countries around the world [source: USDA].
That’s a lot of coconuts! And that number doesn’t even include non-tree sources such as raffia palm, nipa palm, and Borneo palm.
A coconut palm produces flowers that will eventually grow into coconuts. In botany terms, this means that the flower has started to develop but has not yet opened up. Once open, these flowers become either male or female flowers. The male flowers drop away without producing fruit.
Female flowers continue to grow until they become large enough to produce coconuts. When the fruit is ripe, it is generally yellow when picked. Coconuts stay on the tree for 9-12 months after maturity before they are ready to be harvested. This is typically when the end cuts of the nut’s husk turn brown and dry out from exposure to sunlight.
The term drupe is specific to the fruit of a plant that has one seed enclosed in an inner shell (the pit), plus a hard outer shell surrounding the seed, like peaches, olives, and avocados.
The word “drupe” comes from the Latin word for stone because these fruits generally have stony seeds. Coconut is not technically classified as a true drupe because it has two layers of woody material covering the seed. That’s why coconuts are called drupaceous fruits by some botanists.
Coconut palms grow best in tropical regions near bodies of water. They need lots of sunlight, rainfall or irrigation, and rich, well-draining soil. They are very sensitive to cold weather, so they are limited to tropical and subtropical climates. Coconuts can also be stored for many months at 29-32 degrees Fahrenheit without damage.
A coconut falls under the category of “fruit” because:
- It’s the seed (the hard shell) that grows inside the mature ovary wall of the flower on top of the plant
- It’s derived from a fertilized egg (like most fruits), which hatches into a baby plant (cotyledon) Key Points: Coconuts are usually eaten in their ripe form, not green. They do not grow on the ground but on trees. Coconuts can be grown from coconuts seeds and cuttings.
Coconut trees take about five years and a lot of patience before they will bear fruit — that is if you’re growing them from seed. It’s way easier just to propagate them by cutting or cloning.
Coconut has an outer layer of edible flesh known as mesocarp surrounding one or more seeds called endosperm. The outside appearance of a coconut falls into the category of pepo. A pepo contains an outer layer (rind or skin) with one or more fleshes surrounding the seed.
Most fruits, like apples and bananas, contain seeds on the inside. These are called endocarps because they exist within the fruit’s inner core (endosperm).
Coconuts do not fit this description, as their edible mesocarp and shell surround their actual seed. Since coconuts grow from flowers that have begun to develop but have not opened, botanists refer to them as apocarpous florets.
When a coconut is harvested, it has just finished its seed development stage and the fruit is ready to eat. But harvesting too early will result in cut flowers falling off before they are able to produce fruit. Although you can grow your own coconuts from seed, for most folks the easiest way to enjoy their creamy sweet/salty deliciousness is simply cracking one open and drinking it or making coconut milk or shredded coconut.
Coconuts are very high in potassium (a medium-sized nut supplies more potassium than a banana) and fiber, plus small amounts of sodium copper, iron magnesium, zinc phosphorus, vitamin C, manganese & B vitamins.
Coconut may be beneficial for controlling blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of heart disease, promoting weight loss, and increasing immunity (potentially by strengthening the gut microbiome).
Why can we call it a vegetable?
Botanically speaking, coconuts fall under the umbrella term of fruit. However, because of how they are used in food, the United States Department of Agriculture classifies coconuts as vegetables for culinary purposes.
During World War II, the U.S. government took many foods categorized as fruits and vegetables (such as tomatoes, squash, and beans) that were not typically eaten on their own by Americans out of the public food supply. The reasoning behind this was that these foods would be needed to supplement military rations during the war effort.
Since this time period had an increased demand for foods to feed America’s fighting men, it caused a new classification for all sorts of foods usually thought of as only vegetables or only fruits so that these items could be counted twice towards rationing numbers each month.
For this reason, Americans today commonly refer to coconuts as vegetables even though they are fruits. The tradition continued into the 1990s when the U.S. The Department of Agriculture referred to coconuts as vegetables in its monthly reports so that various food assistance programs could distribute assistance for twice the number of people than was originally intended.
What about coconut water?
Coconut water is not considered fruit juice by the United States Food and Drug Administration because it does not meet certain legal requirements defining a fruit juice product.
Because it is designed with less sugar and more sodium than actual fruit juices, coconut water falls under a different designation called a beverage. Juice manufacturers add extra nutrients to their products before they come off the production line.
The labels on coconut water cannot legally include the word “juice” when describing its contents, so they are sold as a beverage.
Coconuts are not vegetables
Vegetables are usually defined as edible parts of plant-based foods that contain high amounts of nutrients and have a low caloric content. Being a seed, the coconut cannot be classified as a vegetable.
Vegetables mostly come from fruiting plants such as cucumber or sweet pepper. The definition of what is considered a vegetable varies according to geographical areas, culture, and language used.
For example, in North America can be considered vegetable stalks such as celery and rhubarb whereas the same plant species would not be given this status in other countries where it is known by another name or does not exist at all.
In Eastern Europe for instance, cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini are never referred to as vegetables but rather part of the “sauce” category.
Some more reasons why coconut is classified as a fruit
Coconuts are classified as fruit but are commonly used as if they were vegetables. While this might be confusing to some people, the classification of coconuts within the botanical world is not difficult.
To begin with, it is important to note that “fruit” refers to the mature ovary of a plant where seed develops after fertilization has occurred. Meanwhile, “vegetables” refer to edible plants or parts of plants not considered sweet and usually prepared without meat products.
Although coconuts grow on trees and have hard shells full of water that can be consumed by people along with the nut, they are actually drupes. This simply means that after fertilization occurs, anary containing seeds forms outside of the ovary wall. The seed is encased in a hard shell and is often referred to as the “fruit” of the plant.
While coconuts develop in a similar fashion to most fruits, they do not grow on trees like other fruit such as apples or oranges. Instead, when the fruit has matured, it falls from the tree where it can then produce new shoots if allowed to germinate naturally in an area that will provide enough sunlight and water for its growth. This process also occurs in avocados and mangos.
The coconut develops from a flower that must be pollinated by hand in order to create viable seeds outside of its native habitat. Most people familiar with this crop understand these plants through propagation.
Coconuts are often classified as fruit, but they are actually the seed of the drupe which is encased in a hard shell. This makes it possible for people to consume both the meaty section within the shell and drink its water without dying from any bacteria that may have killed them.
Additionally, coconuts need specific conditions to thrive before the seed can germinate naturally or be successfully transplanted. Overall, coconuts are very similar to other fruits found around the world except for their unusual method of growth and germination.
All this nutrient information adds up to one conclusion: coconuts are an excellent source of nutrition. And it’s clear that they are botanically classified as a fruit.