Palm Tree vs Coconut Tree – What Is The Difference?

If you love tropical trees, you might be wondering about the different kinds of palms, and that might lead you to compare palm trees and coconut trees, and wonder what the two have in common and what the differences are between them.

Coconut trees are a kind of palm, but there are differences between these and many other kinds of palm trees. Coconut trees are quite distinctive and differ from other palm trees in terms of their trunks and the fruits they bear. You should be able to distinguish a coconut palm from other kinds of palms pretty easily using these two factors.

How Many Kinds Of Palm Trees Are There?

It is thought that there are over 2500 kinds of palm, so it’s easy to see how coconut trees could get confused with other palm trees. Many palms are tall, slim, and have thick waves of fronds at the top, so they can look quite similar to each other, especially from a distance.

However, the coconut palm must be one of the most iconic trees that exist, and you have undoubtedly seen it many times in movies and games and almost anything that involves a desert island. The idea of coconuts falling on the heads of characters has amused people for generations, and pretty much everyone is familiar with what a coconut tree looks like.

Coconut Palm Tree

Palm trees, including coconut trees, are found in many tropical places. They can survive in cold environments surprisingly well, although they are not by any means adapted to live in a cool place. Palm trees tend to have stiff, fan-like leaves that spread from a central point, and coconut palms are no exception to this rule.

It’s also worth noting that palm trees are not actually trees at all, and nor are coconut trees. They are a plant that is genetically closer to grass than, for example, an oak, even though they look very much like other trees do.

Palm trees can vary massively in height, with some reaching up to two hundred feet, although on average they only reach thirty to fifty feet tall. Coconut palms frequently grow to a hundred feet, so they are among the taller species, although not the tallest.

They are also among the longest-lived palm trees (though they do not win the top prize in this category either). They often live for eighty or ninety years, while some palms can live to over a hundred.

So, if coconut trees are just a species of palm, how can you tell them apart from other common palm trees? Are there any clear indicators, besides guessing based on their height?

How Do Coconut Palms Differ From Other Palms?

There is a lot of variation from one palm to another, so it can be difficult to say how a coconut palm is different from other palm trees – because “other palm trees” is not a generic category to compare with. 

A date palm looks very different from a foxtail palm, for example, and a coconut palm looks different again. However, many date palms and coconut palms look quite similar.

In general, you can tell a coconut palm apart from other kinds of palm trees in two significant ways: the stem and the fruits. There are a few other indicators, which we’ll cover as well, although they are less distinctive.

The Look Of The Stem

The first difference is in the coconut tree’s stem. A palm tree usually has a scaly sort of trunk (it is not technically a real trunk, despite it commonly being referred to as such), which is very textured and rough.

If you run your hand down it, you would feel a lot of bumps and lumps, which is a result of the way that the palm tree grows and sheds leaves.

When the leaves drop off, the part of the leaf that attaches the foliage to the tree remains, and this is a tough, fibrous structure that adds stability and solidity to the palm’s stem. It will grow increasingly hard over time until it forms a sort of “bark” on the outside of the stem that is very rough.

As the tree grows and its leaves fall, it gains more and more of these lumps, because it is constantly shedding and growing its foliage.

This gives many palms a tiered sort of appearance, and a very rough and rugged stem supporting their leaves.

Coconut Tree Stem

The coconut palm, however, has a less scaly trunk. It is not as rough as the stem of other plants, and indeed it can be almost smooth. You may notice this if you look at pictures of a coconut tree; it is much less ridged and rough than other palm trees are.

The stems may be smooth because the leaves drop off coconut palms in full, and only the fibrous stem remains. Many people actually skin their palm trees to achieve this smooth effect, but this does leave the trees at more risk of infection because it creates wounds and leaves the plant more vulnerable.

The stems of coconut palm trees also tend to be thinner than those of many other palms, which can be surprisingly thick. This may be partly because they don’t have the addition of the frond remnants adding to their thickness. It can be surprising how long and slim these trees actually are.

Given that they grow very tall, their slimness is quite distinctive and unusual.

The Fruits

Probably the biggest difference between coconut palm and other types of palm trees is the fruit that coconut palms produce. Obviously, the fruits they make are coconuts and they are the only kind of palm producing it.

There are two kinds of coconut trees – the tall coconut tree and the dwarf coconut tree. Both make coconuts, which are not actually a nut, but a drupe, a kind of fruit. Other palms produce other fruits, such as the date palm which makes dates.

During the fruiting season, the presence of coconuts is the biggest indicator of the difference between coconut trees and other palms. No other palm trees produce a fruit that looks even slightly similar to the coconut palm, so you’ll know if you are looking at a coconut tree or not.


If you’re standing on a beach and staring at a palm tree, trying to work out whether or not it’s a coconut palm, this is the best possible way to tell. However, it only works during the fruiting season, and not all palms fruit every year.

Coconut palms generally start fruiting when they are around four or five years old, and a coconut takes about a year to fully ripen. Nevertheless, the fruits can be eaten before they are completely ripe, and often have a better flavor if they are picked young.

Because coconuts stay on the tree for such a long time while they are ripening, there’s a good chance that a coconut tree will have fruits on it when you are looking. If it doesn’t, the biggest indicator will be its long and slim stem. There are a few other things you can look at, which we will cover next.

The Leaves

The leaves of coconut trees are somewhat distinctive from the leaves of other palm trees, although you might have to put two varieties side by side to see the differences clearly. In general, coconut trees have quite wide leaves, whereas other palms may have narrower ones.

If you are interested in finding out the difference between a coconut palm and another specific palm species, you might find it useful to compare pictures of the fronds online. Some palms have very fan-like leaves, unlike the coconut tree’s long, spreading ones.

Slightly Shorter Lifespan

Depending on the kind of palm you are comparing the coconut tree with, you may find that it has a shorter lifespan. Many palm trees can survive well over a hundred years, whereas coconut palms generally only live up to about eighty years, even in good conditions.

Compared with, for example, the date palm and the Mexican fan palm, the coconut tree is short-lived, as these other two kinds of palm can survive for over a hundred years. However, compared with the Areca palm, which only lives for around forty years, the coconut tree is quite long-lived.

Different Root System

Almost all palm trees have shallow roots, but coconut palms seem to be particularly shallow-rooted, and therefore they are susceptible to being pulled up by strong winds. Compare these to, for example, the date palm, and you might be surprised by just how shallow the root system is.

Coconut Tree Shallow Roots

A coconut palm’s roots can spread out to cover a surface as wide as the tree is tall, but they do not go deep underground. The coconut tree has no tap root, and it is easy for it to get uprooted by strong winds or hurricanes.

Other palms may grow deeper roots, although it depends a lot on their type and size. Not all palm trees will have deep roots, but some will have ones that grow deeper than those of the coconut palm.

How Tall Are The Two Kinds Of Coconut Palms?

When it comes to distinguishing these trees from other sorts of palm trees, it may help you to have an idea of what they look like and how tall they grow. The dwarf coconut palm is, of course, considerably smaller than the tall coconut palm.

Dwarf coconut palms grow to about twenty feet tall, so they can still reach pretty good heights. By contrast, the tall variety can grow to around a hundred feet tall – which is phenomenally tall.

Within these two categories, there are several varieties, so there are quite a lot of different coconut palms all in all. 

You may see, for example, the Fiji Dwarf or the Malayan Dwarf, or if you’re looking at the tall varieties, you might see the Jamaica Tall, the West Coast Tall Coconut, or the Panama Tall. Any of these can have coconut fruits, and they all look quite similar to each other, but often distinct from other kinds of palm trees.

Some other kinds of coconut trees include:

  • The East Coast Tall Coconut
  • The Tiptur Tall Coconut
  • The Maypan Coconut
  • The Green Dwarf Coconut
  • The Orange Dwarf Coconut
  • The Malayan Yellow Dwarf Coconut
  • The King Coconut
  • The Macapuno Coconut

What Do Coconuts Look Like?

Most people think that they know what coconuts look like, but this is partly because of how we buy coconuts in shops and how they are depicted in films and cartoons. On a tree, a coconut – particularly an unripe one – can look very different.

Immature coconuts are bright green, not brown as you might imagine them to be. They start out quite small and will get larger as time progresses. The bright green coconuts are mostly filled with water, which will be converted into coconut meat as time goes on. Although ripe coconuts still contain coconut water, it is less than in unripe coconuts. 

It will take about twelve months for the coconut fruits to fully mature, and most coconuts are harvested a bit before they are fully ripe, because the meat is softer then. In general, coconuts will ripen at the same time as other coconuts in the bunch, which makes them easy to harvest.

A single coconut tree will often produce around twenty-five coconuts in any one year, although it does vary between trees and varieties.


Coconut trees are a kind of palm tree, and although they are a distinctive variety, they share many similarities with other palm trees. The best way to tell them apart from other palm trees is to look for a smooth, long stem, and the highly recognizable coconut fruits that these trees are famous for.