Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Beware of the Wronged Coconuts!

Coconut palms are the quintessential symbol of tropical paradise. Spindly, tall trees with large feathery leaves wisp in tropical breezes on tropical beaches of white sand, under blue sky and by turquoise water.


Beach in Hawaii with coconut palm tree. (cc) anda (: on Flickr.

Up in the crown of the palm, a few coconuts are usually hanging, ready to fall down on you at any moment.  If they do, and they don’t hit you, with some work you can get to the delicious inside of the coconut. (As a side note, when you consume the white parts inside, you eat or drink palm endosperm. In case you didn’t know. )

This staple food plant is spread all over the tropics, and a well-known plant in many cultures, even urban cities of today far from tropical beaches.  It is a plant that is easy to identify, delicious, and quite symbolic for us.  Therefore, it is quite strange that in popular culture so many illustrators get this plant wrong.  Really wrong. OK, as an illustrator you can simplify a lot, that is fine, but that is not the same as changing the properties of a plant and create something that doesn’t exist.

First, this is what a coconut plant looks like:

Coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (Arecaceae) From Köhler’s Medicinal-Pflanzen, public domain (Wikipedia)

  • Note the tall, skinny stem of even thickness, with horizontal leaf scars on it.
  • Note the big fruits (coconuts), aggregated close to the trunk at the top.
  • Note the leaves, in a rosette at the top,
  • Note that each leaf is divided into tiny, tiny leaflets that are arranged like a feather along a midrib.  It it the midrib, the vein along the center, that holds together the leaf. Each leaf can be very long, up to 5 meters (15 feet) at least and all the little leaflets are loose from each other except at the midrib of the leaf.
Here is a closeup of a coconut leaf, showing many leaflets along a midrib:

Coconut leaf showing many leaflets connected along the midrib. (cc) Azeem Azeez on Flickr.

So, how do some of  the clipart masters and popular illustrators show coconut palms?  A quick Google search results in a variety of morphologies, most of them correct:
Screenshot of Google image search ‘coconut palm clipart free’, (cc)
but a few hits that look like this:

“Palm Tree Clipart Image: Tropical Coconut Palm Tree Icon”  Image courtesy of

COCONUT6Coconut tree design. (cc)



Screenshot from, a stockphoto website showing ‘palm clip-art’. (c), fair use.



Screenshot of, showing clipart with ‘double coconut palm tree island and sun’. (c) Hit Toon, fair use.

Do you see the problems here?  Hint – stems and leaves.

Coconut leaves are finely divided into small thin and long segments arranged along a midrib, like a feather.  But, these ones above have whole, undivided leaves, which sometimes are slightly lobed.  In fact, some of these leaves look more like banana leaves.

The stems should be evenly thick, and they should have horizontal, evenly distributed leaf scars towards the top of the tree trunk.  These have a variety of stem patterns and shapes.

One thing they get right, the placement of the coconuts.  But you wonder why are there nearly always three coconuts in a tree, don’t you?

So, shouldn’t illustrators have the freedom to simplify, improvise, and design their own plants?  Sure.  But if you use one of these examples, then realize that the adults and kids that see these images will think that this is how a coconut palm looks like, when in reality, that is not true.  So, even if these images are fine and pretty as clip art and design pieces, they are still very botanically inaccurate.


Screenshot of Google image search ‘dog clipart free’, (cc)

Illustrators often simplify drawings of dogs, elephants and chickens too, but the characteristic features are always there, trunk, wagging tail, 4 legs, beak and feathers,. and so on.  To change the features that are characteristics for the coconut palm changes the species, it changes what you want to illustrate into an imaginary plant. It is like drawing a dog with a beak – we would complain that it no longer was a dog.  Many people don’t realize that these palm drawings are incorrect, because we have lost a lot of botanical knowledge in our societies.  We all still know how a dog looks like though!

Lena Struwe is a professor in botany and evolutionary biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she teaches college students about the uses, biodiversity, and naming of plants from the whole world.  She also runs the blog Botanical Accuracy, where botanical mistakes in media and on commercial products are highlighted and corrected.  Her official Rutgers web page is here.

Posted by Lena Struwe on February 20, 2014 at 7:05 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.

5 responses to “Beware of the Wronged Coconuts!”

  1. skr says:

    I’m guessing you don’t draw. Properly formed palm leaves would be a clipart nightmare. The outlines would all bleed together at small sizes. Newsflash, shrubs aren’t big green blobs, they actually have leaves. I’m pretty sure no one ever was confused by a real shrub because it wasn’t a big green cartoon blob. Detail has to be eliminated for clip art.

    • Lena says:

      Dear skr,
      I do draw 🙂 There are plenty of clipart and illustration examples that get this palm morphology right even in simplified form. The main point here is that it takes some attention to plant detail and observation skills to draw these plants in simplified form, and that mistakes are sometimes made. Simplification is fine, but the introduction of errors that are not necessary are not OK. At least that is what I think. 🙂

  2. Susan P says:

    For the reason there are always three coconuts, I have a theory, one coconut looks weird/sad, two could wander into the realm of genitalia, and four gets too many to look pleasing and issues of symmetry (it looks unnatural). So three is perfect.
    For the fronds, as a born-and-raised Floridian who has had palms of all sorts in my front yard all my life, the leaflets get blown in the wind and tangle within each other leaving gaps. When you look at the trees from the ground, the fronds have spaces. Also, other palms and palm-like plants often do have connected leaves that will split leaving gaps. When we would doodle them in my family, we would leave the fronds whole and thin, but some of the bad examples still aren’t too far off, like the 123RF.
    Clip-art tries to make everything cute and more accessible, so while a normal illustration would emphasize the length of the palm’s trunk, clip-art is pushing the coconuts. Similar to elephant clip-art that makes the already large ears huge compared to the rest of the animal. All in all, I doubt anyone is using clip-art as their go-to for identifying palm trees, those drawings are used primarily for cartoons of someone stranded on an island, which is a pretty typical far-fetched drawing to begin with.

  3. greg draiss says:

    Wow has this blog drifted away from gardening. Used to enjoy the articles and occasionally tangle with the hosts and ranters. Hardly ever read it anymore.

    The TROLL

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