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What Gender Is a Coconut?

Sometimes seemingly nonsense questions have interesting answers.

Group of coconut palms growing on a beach in Samoa.
Stephen Glauser, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Teinesavaii, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Few plants are as emblematic of the tropics as the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera. This tree can be found on just about every postcard depicting a tropical beach, anywhere in the world, and for good reason. Coconuts are improbably suited to human cultivation in places where few other plants can cope and have earned their prominence in the world’s tropical cuisines and island lifestyles. Via a mix of human aid and their own ecology, coconut palms have spread throughout the warm, coastal parts of the world, and with them an enduring mystery: what gender is a coconut?

This question actually has several answers, and they get to the heart of what people mean when they ask about gender and the actual differences between individual coconuts.

First, the obvious. Gender, as humans tend to use the term, is a social concept that refers first and foremost to personal identity. Coconut palms, as plants, lack the rich inner lives and social structures required for the human notion of gender to apply, prurient slang about certain human body parts notwithstanding. To emphasize the obvious, the full complexity of what gender is for humans is quite outside the coconut experience. In this sense, the gender of every coconut is null.

But humans often use the word “gender” in reference to a related, entangled concept: biological sex. What reproduction-related variations exist within Cocos nucifera, just as most mammals have one subset of the population that produces sperm and another that produces ova? Well, like a huge number of plant species, coconuts are monoecious, which in animal terms is sometimes called “hermaphroditic.” A coconut palm produces both pollen-bearing and seed-bearing flowers, with both types appearing in each of its flower clusters. The gender of virtually every coconut is, then…both.

Ask people from Polynesia, the world centre of coconut diversity, about coconuts, however, and one gets a third, very different story. Here, coconuts are designated “male” or “female” based on their growth patterns, with exact criteria varying between island groups. In much of the region, a coconut palm is designated “female” if its initial sprout emerges from the peduncle, the dimple where the coconut was connected to its parent tree before it fell. “Male” coconut palms’ initial sprouts burst through the husk of the coconut seemingly at random. There is a widespread preference for growing coconut palms designated “female” in this scheme, as they are reputed to have larger seeds (in which the edible flesh resides) and grow to more convenient heights. Coconuts can also be designated as “male” or “female” on the basis of the shape of the end opposite the peduncle or of the initial sprout, with those designated “female” in both cases regarded as more desirable to cultivate. It is common knowledge, and not regarded as contradicting the use of the terms “male” and “female,” that both “genders” of coconut palm produce coconuts. Here, calling coconuts “male” or “female” has nothing to do with reproductive biology and is instead a convenient duality to invoke when selecting plants to cultivate. (This duality exists concurrently with distinctions between coconut breeds meant for fibre harvesting versus those meant for food and with the coconut palm’s genetic history as a species with two separate domestication events in its past, interestingly.)

As science communicators, clarity is our stock in trade. Choosing our words to make sure we convey the desired impression is what makes our work what it is. It is also key to our profession that we enjoy knowledge for its own sake, that we appreciate unusual connections between ideas, and that we know what potential sources of confusion exist so that we can anticipate and pre-empt them. In addition to the cultural, gastronomic, and ecological richness that Cocos nucifera brings to all our lives, it also provides this quirky example of just what sorts of potential confusion and dual meaning one must navigate when translating dense scientific writing to other contexts and the level of understanding required to do it well.

So, what gender is a coconut? That depends on your goal and your context, and armed with both, we can make your story happen with aplomb.

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