Types of Coconut
There is a little confusion surrounding the different types of coconut palm. This is mainly because there are many types of coconut palm but only one species of the coconut plant: that is the Cocos nucifera. This is the only palm that produces coconuts. That is incredible considering there are around 2,600 species of palm in the world. This makes the coconut very special.
It gets confusing because although there is only one species of coconut palm there are several varieties of coconut palm that often look very different from one another. It is thus tempting to think these varieties of coconut palm form different species, but they don’t.
Types of coconut: tall and dwarf
One standard way of dividing up the different varieties of coconut is into the distinction ‘tall coconut’ and ‘dwarf coconut’. As the name implies the tall coconut is considerably taller than the dwarf. Tall coconuts also take 5 to 7 years to mature, whereas the dwarf coconut will start producing fruit after 3 years.
Tall coconuts are more common than dwarf coconuts. These plants can cross-pollinate. This means that tall coconuts often share genetic material with other plants. This leads to even greater variety.
In contrast most dwarf coconuts self-pollinate so this leads to fewer types of dwarf coconut than tall coconut. It is estimated that only 5% of coconuts are dwarfs. As well as being taller, tall coconuts have wider leaves that are less uniform. Tall coconuts also have a bulbous base that is missing on dwarf coconuts.
Coconut varieties come in different colors: as well as green there are red and orange coconuts. To list a few names of coconuts:
MayJam – a hybrid cross between a Jamaica Tall and a Malaya Dwarf
West Africa Tall
Fiji Dwarf / Samoan Dwarf (dwarf with characteristics of a tall)
Coconut types: fruit – niu kafa or niu vai
When discussing the different types of coconut often two Samoan names are used niu kafa and niu vai. These terms refer to the fruit whereas ‘tall’ and ‘dwarf’ refer to the size of the coconut palm. Niu kafa is elongated and has a large fibrous husk. Niu vai is round and contains more coconut water when unripe. Niu vai fruit is also often red or orange when unripe.
It is often thought that niu kafa is the wild variety of coconut and niu vai is a newer domesticated form of the coconut. DNA testing has proved this theory wrong. Both types have for centuries been cultivated by man. The results of DNA testing (Olsen, 2011) show that there are 2 distinct origins for coconut cultivation in the world: the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Now the two types have been mixed, but it is thought that niu vai form originated in the Pacific region and the niu kafa in the Indian Ocean region.
And so to reiterate: there is only one species of coconut palm, but there are many types of coconut.
2) Bee F. Gunn, Luc Baudouin, Kenneth M. Olsen. Independent Origins of Cultivated Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (6): e21143 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021143