JoAnne Skelly: Fruits vs. vegetables to a botanist

I asked my husband this morning if a coconut was a fruit. This started a conversation about what is a fruit versus what is a vegetable. Tomatoes and string beans are fruits that everyone thinks of as vegetables.

If you are a botanist, a fruit is a structure that holds the seeds of a plant. Vegetables come from all the other plant parts such as leaves, roots and stems. This means plant structures that contain seeds such as tomatoes, apples and squash are actually fruits. However, since kale and lettuce are leaves of the plant, they are vegetables. Celery is a grouping of stalks, making it a vegetable. Potatoes are swollen stems called tubers, and they too are vegetables. Carrots, beets and turnips are roots — more vegetables. Broccoli is actually swollen flowers. Peas are immature seeds, also vegetables.

Chefs think differently than botanists. They think things that are savory are vegetables, whereas sweet things are fruits. This makes eggplants, peppers and tomatoes vegetables to a chef, even though they are fruits to a botanist. The reason fruits evolved to be generally sweet and tasty was to ensure they were eaten by animals in order to disseminate seeds, not for chefs to differentiate them from vegetables.

A nut is a one-seeded fruit with a tough shell around its edible center. True nuts, botanically speaking, such as beechnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts, don’t open at maturity. The seeds are released when the fruit wall decays or when an animal eats it. Almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and Brazil nuts are not really nuts at all, horticulturally speaking. They are the seeds of the fruit of those trees.

A coconut is rather complicated. This member of the palm family can be a fruit, a nut and a seed. It is a fruit in the sense it has a hard covering enclosing its seed. What we buy in the store doesn’t look like what grows on a tree.

The original coconut has three layers. The outermost layer is smooth and green, but turns brown after being picked and dried. Then comes the fibrous part, and finally the hard woody layer with the seed inside. The hard layer is similar to the pit of a peach or plum. Coconuts are different from many other fruits because they are dispersed primarily via floating on water from one beach to another.

All this began with me putting coconut on my cereal!

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at or 887-2252.


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