While to the consumer it may seem that there are a few different types of coconuts, there is really only one species of coconut plant. The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, is the only type of palm tree that produces coconuts. Within this species, however, there are dozens of different varieties of coconuts. The different varieties are usually divided into two main types: tall and dwarf.
Talls are the most common type of coconut palm. They can cross-pollinate, which means that they share genetic material among trees, leading to a lot of variations in the characteristics of the fruit. The two main types of tall coconuts are the niu kafa — which grows mostly in the wild and not commercially; and the niu vai, which is domesticated. In most cases, the many different types of coconuts that fall between the two types are named according to where they are grown. Some varieties include the West African Tall and the Tampakan Tall.
Dwarf coconuts mostly self-pollinate, which means that there are fewer different types. As the name indicates, they are smaller than the talls, which makes them more popular to grow in home gardens and parks. Dwarf coconut trees produce more fruit than tall trees do, but the coconuts are generally smaller in size. Like tall trees, dwarfs are usually named by their country of origin; in addition, the color of the young fruit is included as part of the name. Some varieties include the Cameroon Red, the Malayan Yellow, and the Nias Green.
One variety of coconut, the Niu Leka Dwarf, also known as the Fiji Dwarf or Samoan Dwarf, is distinct from other dwarf varieties. This tree is thicker than other dwarf coconuts and has several characteristics in common with the tall.
The coconut fruit consists of three layers around a hollow center. The outermost layer, or husk, is green, red, or yellow at first, but turns brown as the coconut matures. In tropical countries, young coconuts are often sold with the top cut off and a straw inserted to make a refreshing drink. The hollow of the coconut is filled with coconut water, not to be confused with the coconut milk made from the meat of the mature fruit.
Mature coconuts are often sold with the husk completely removed. Alternatively, the husk may be cut down but not completely cut off. The inner part of the husk revealed by this process is whitish and usually looks whittled down. As the coconut ages, the husk softens, so it is easy for the consumer to cut away the rest of the husk from coconuts with part of the husk left. Coconuts sold this way will stay fresher longer.
In many parts of the world, coconuts are only available without the husk. These coconuts consist of only two layers — the shell and the meat — surrounding the coconut-water filled interior. The shell of the coconut is brown and hairy in appearance, with three "eyes" that can be punctured to drain the fruit.
After the coconut is drained and split open, the white meat lining the walls of the shell is revealed. This meat is much thicker and oilier in a mature coconut than in the younger version of the fruit. Fresh coconut meat can be eaten plain, grated and added to a salad or dessert, or it can be squeezed and strained to produce coconut milk for use in many tropical recipes. Dried coconut is also a popular ingredient in a variety of dishes.
In addition to the use of coconut water and meat as food, the other parts of the coconut have many applications. The husk fibers, or coir can be used as compost or stuffing, or it can be woven to make ropes and mats. The shell, when dried out, can be carved into buttons and other decorative items. Parts of a coconut can even be used to clean floors or to produce charcoal.