What is the Difference Between a Palm Tree and a Coconut Tree?

Coconuts grow on palm trees, right?

And palm trees grow coconuts.

Almost, but not quite: I’m going to explain the difference between a palm tree and a coconut tree.

Palm Trees

First, palm trees: belonging to the plant family Arecaceae, palm trees are actually a group of over 200 genera, or groupings, composed of around 2600 individual species of tree or shrub.

Or maybe they’re all shrubs; botanically, palms are not technically trees. As most people think of them as trees though, we’ll stick with that here.

Palm Trees growing on the beach
Photo by fotoblend at Pixabay

The plant family is sometimes incorrectly referred to as Palmaceae, and while palms grow naturally in both hemispheres and can be found from the Mediterranean to New Zealand, their presence is largely confined to tropical regions.

Palms grow from about 44° North to 44° South latitude, but are most prevalent between 30° N and 30° S. The areas in which they grow generally have average annual temperatures of between 60° and 70° Fahrenheit (15-21° Celsius). As palms have high water requirements, they’re usually found in regions with at least 20 inches (500mm) of rainfall each year.

Palms trees can range in size from a few feet tall for smaller palm bushes grown as houseplants and those grown in gardens far from their native habitats to 100 feet high or so for the average tropical palm tree. Or to an astonishing 200 feet (60 meters) tall for the endangered wax palms of Cocora Valley, Columbia!

Very tall palm trees in Colombia
Photo by Makalu at Pixabay

And Coconut Trees

The coconut tree, or Cocos nucifera to be precise, is a member of the palm family. Although there’s only one species of palm that grows coconuts, within that Cocos nucifera species are multiple different varieties. There is even a dwarf coconut tree.

Coconut palms, like all palms, grow in tropical parts of the world, but their distribution is less than that of palms in general; coconuts grow in latitudes ranging from 20° North to 20° South.

coconut-cocos-nucifera-tree-nuts
Photo by vinkjd at Pixabay

The coconut is actually a fruit, or drupe, if you’d like the scientific term. It’s not a nut. If a coconut is allowed to germinate, the shoot of the new tree will grow from one of the three “pores” in the fruit (drupe). The pores are the indentations that make a coconut look a little bit like a bowling ball.

Full-sized coconut trees can grow to 50-80 feet (15-24 meters) in height. It usually takes them between 6 and 10 years to start producing fruit. Dwarf varieties can still reach heights of 20-60 feet (6-18 meters), but can produce coconuts in 3-4 years. Their coconuts tend to grow lower to the ground, so harvests are a little easier.

Spot the Difference!

The main way to tell that a palm tree is a coconut palm is by the presence of coconuts. Otherwise, coconut palms have smoother stems than many, but not all, other types of palm. If you want to be sure though, ask a local, wait for the fruits, or do a bit of in-depth botanical research.

So, while all coconut trees are palm trees, not all palm trees are coconut trees. Now you know!

Featured Image by Luidmila Kot at Pixabay

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