What Are Coconuts? Are They Actually Nuts?

(Last Updated On: July 28, 2020)

What Are Coconuts?

What Are Coconuts?

If you’ve ever cracked open a coconut, you’ve probably noticed they have some non-traditional fruit anatomy. So what is a coconut exactly? It has ‘nut’ in the name, but it might not be that simple. We’ve also got fruits and seeds to content with. So let’s break down just what coconuts actually are–and are not.


Maybe we should start with the coconut’s namesake–the nut. Well, there’s also the “coco” half. That part is derived from the Portuguese/Spanish coco, which translates to either “head” or “skull.” It appears that the namesake comes from the three bowling-ball looking holes resembling holes in our own faces. Also coconuts are hard.

That tangent aside, let’s get into the nut part of the coconut–a little more useful in dissecting what a coconut is. Unless coconuts are actually heads but we find that unlikely.

Nuts are in fact fruits. So if a coconut is technically a nut, that also makes it a fruit. Kind of like that whole all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. Nuts are fruits, but not all fruits are nuts.

By definition, nuts are fruits with really hard shells (instead of those juicy exteriors). These shells are inedible, while the seed they protect is. Botanically, the shells are part of the fruit’s ovarian wall, which hardens and becomes the nut’s shell. This means a “true nut” seed cannot break its shell on its own. The seed can only come out if the shell decays or is otherwise destroyed (typically through digestion). Nuts are also generally speaking single-seeded fruits.

Just like how tomatoes are botanically fruits but culinarily vegetables, nuts suffer a similar fate. In the food industry, nuts are really just any oily kernel bits inside of a shell (broadly speaking). That makes almonds, walnuts, and pistachios not botanical nuts.

Further Reading: Is a Tomato a Fruit or Vegetable?

It’s not super important, but small nuts can be called nutlets, and that’s a botanical term. 

Coconut Anatomy

So a coconut has three layers, the exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp. The exocarp forms the outer layer, for coconuts that’s the shell around the fibrous husk. That fiber forms the mesocarp, while the endocarp is the brown shell around the flesh/coconut water and all that. The coconut water and stuff is referred to as the endosperm.

Oh, for those of you who may have thought that the brown ball was the coconut, now you know that’s just the endocarp and endosperm. Commercial coconuts are typically de-husked. 

The endosperm of a coconut makes up most of the “seed” while also providing it sustenance while it grows. Once it germinates and starts making a coconut tree, it’ll emerge from one of the pores/holes in the coconut. Because one seed comes out of one coconut, and there’s a hard shell, a coconut can be considered a nut. So, problem solved? Well no, the plant is coming out of the coconut shell on its own, and therefore we don’t have a nut on our hands. 

Because the seed is all mixed in and part of the coconut’s endosperm, and the coconut is not a true nut, maybe you’d think the coconut is the seed. You’d be kinda wrong in the same way you’re sort of wrong with the nut distinction.

Coconuts Are Drupes

To put a name on it, coconuts are actually drupes. They’re a little bit special in that they’re dry drupes. They share this classification with another fruit you’re probably familiar with: the peach. That hard pit in the middle of the peach? That’s basically the defining characteristic of the drupes. 

Peaches just have fleshy and wet endocarps, unlike the coconut husks. 

This means the brown thing you buy without the coconut husk is the fruit’s pit. 

So we guess coconuts are just drier peaches?

If you like coconuts, you should probably know where they come from. See if you know where they do here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.