Other Names: Cocoa, Cacao, Cacau, Coco
Related To: [Malvaceae] Cupuassu, Mocambo, Hibiscus
Main Uses: Fruit and seeds, which are the basic source of all chocolate.
Growth Rate: Moderate.
Mature Height/Spread: Small tree up to 25 feet.
Flowering/Pollination: Cauliflorous. Flowers have long stalks with tiny flower heads. Cacao is about 90% self-sterile, requiring more than one tree for thorough pollination. Individual trees will however produce fruit sporadically on their own.
Tolerance: Can tolerate some dry topsoil provided the air is humid, but prefers a moist, acidic/slight acid and well aerated loam. Thrives in 70% humidity. Species has little tolerance for salt.
Soil/Nutrition: PH between 6 to 7.5 – Rich, neutral to mildly acidic, moist and moderately drained. 50% sand with organic matter makes an excellent base. Mulching with compost improves fruit yield, as does weeding beneath the tree.
Light: Thrives best in dappled shade, or filtered sunlight. Can be adapted to receive more sun, but always prefers shelter from direct light. In nature, this is a forest understory tree.
Wind: Delicate, certainly needs a sheltered location. Some sensitive varieties of cacao (such as criollo) can even be killed by the temperature variance of strong winds.
Temperature: Tropical, but can withstand very brief drops into the upper 40’s, though this depends on the hardiness and variety of the tree. Cacao will suffer and eventually die with prolonged temperatures in the 50’s. Temps must be maintained on average above 70 degrees for the tree to thrive.
Dangers: No dangers posed to humans. Dogs, cats and other true carnivores should never eat chocolate, as the alkaloid theobromine is potentially cardiotoxic to them. Much of the theobromine content is located in the papery husk, not in the bean itself.
Diseases Prone: Mealybugs, scale, fungi, leaf drying (due to insufficient humidity).
Bearing Age: Seedlings can reach bearing age in 4-5 years in ideal circumstances. Commercial production will take about 10 years from seed.
Fruit: Oblong, round, ridged melon-like seed pods containing many dozen seeds. Resembles an elongated acorn squash. Pods ripen in a small spectrum of colors from yellow to orange to reddish-purple and also vary somewhat in size and shape. The white slippery flesh membranes surrounding seeds are edible, tasting sweetish, and in some types similar to artificial banana flavoring. Seeds are considered edible in all forms. Pods take 5-6 months to develop from pollination.
History/Origin: To make processed “cocoa beans,” the pods are harvested while barely green, beginning to turn yellow/orange, then hacked open with a machete. Pods with firm cottony textured pulp are ideal, ones fully colored with mucilaginous flesh are considered a bit overripe for quality chocolate production. The seeds are fermented in their surrounding flesh for 3-10 days to develop the desired flavor profile then dried, winnowed, and roasted. These basic fermented cocoa beans (whole or in ‘nibs’) are the basis of most commercial chocolate. Parts of the tree are also used medicinally.
There is some evidence of cacao being first used by the Olmec civilization some 4,000 years ago. It is known that cacao was cultivated and highly regarded by the Mayans and Aztecs. Mayans are said to have discovered the edibility of these forest pods by watching the indigenous spider monkey’s preference for picking and eating this species. The pods do not fall naturally from the tree they rely on animals to pick and open them. The seeds only retain their viability for a maximum of 20 days before dying. They germinate quite well when passed through a primate’s digestive tract, the species has depended on primates and occasionally other omnivorous mammals for it’s distribution throughout the American tropics. In Mexico these primates did not cross the Usumanicata River or it’s mountains to the south and because of this natural boundary, Theobroma cacao does not occur naturally in the Yucatan although the climate will support the species. There are a few other species associated with Cacao. The Aztecs used the flower of Quararibea funebris (“Flor De Cacao”) as a major flavoring for their cacao drinks. A large leguminous tree known as “Madre de Cacao” Gliricida sepidum is used as a shade tree for cacao, preferring the same soil type and being a nitrogen repleting species which enhances the vegetative growth of the cacao it shades.
In the time of Hernan Cortez the tree was considered divine, and the seeds were used as a health-imbuing food for those who could afford it, and also as a type of currency. Many traditionally-rooted recipes of cacao are still made today by the extant Maya. King Moctezuma is well known for his fated encounter with Hernando Cortez in 1519. Cortez observed the aging Moctezuma’s legendary libido which arose out of a hot, bitter combination of ingredients combined in a royal drink. One of these main ingredients was powdered roasted chocolate (cocoa). Though the exact recipe for Moctezuma’s aphrodisiac drink was destroyed and forgotten during the crusades, some of the other ingredients included damiana (Turnera diffusa), hot chili peppers (Capsicum annuum), flor de cacao (Quararibea funebris), Achiote seeds (Bixa orellana), Allspice (Pimenta dioica), Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), and salt. The addition of Eastern spices (such as Canela cinnamon) and sugar cane did not occur until contact and exchange with the old world. Modern sweet chocolates are the result of 12,000 miles of cultural mixture and gradual evolution.
Species Observations: Leaves begin to dry out if humidity is inadequate – first the older foliage, then the younger. New leaves are salmon-pink and emerge in a languid manner. Small, new leaves grow and expand into large ones quickly. Due to the tree’s love of humidity, the trunk is typically splotched with parasitic but typically harmless fungus and/or algae.
The taste of any specific cacao bean is often considered by the growers and chocolate enthusiasts to be a culmination of many different environmental elements. Cacao is a sensitive species, so changes in soil, air, and sun will affect the flavor of the beans produced. For this reason, varietal or “single origin” chocolates are popular, much like wines which are known by their regions.
Some chocolate producers have been using the beans of wild cacao (Theobroma bicolor) in their chocolate bean mixture, or using this species as a pollinator in cacao orchards to produce beans with white insides. These cross-pollinated beans have less bitterness. Some feel these white chocolate beans are not ideally used alone and are best mixed with traditional dark beans. Wild Cacao (T. bicolor) cannot be fermented alone like true chocolate, it is mixed with true chocolate during fermentation, achieving the 115F temperatures that create flavor in the all chocolate-type beans. These temperatures are achieved from microorganisms digesting the pulp surrounding the beans, which are protected individually by a papery membrane. Traditionally the mild beans of T. bicolor have simply been eaten simply roasted, with spices or salt, it’s use as an adjunct or alternative chocolate is a growing trend.
Seeds of the rainforest species Theobroma grandiflorum, Cupuassu, are also used to make a type of chocolate called “cupulate.”
Propogation: The smooth brown or amethyst-colored fresh seeds, if gently removed from the white flesh within a few days of the pod’s harvest, will germinate very easily with a little warmth. One can also layer branches of a preferred variety. The seedlings prefer solid shade for the first year of their lives, after which they can be allowed some dappled sunlight.
Container Culture: It is sometimes said that cacao is difficult to grow in captivity, however the main problems are temperature and insufficient humidity, which causes drying of the leaves. Growing cacao indoors would be relatively easy for anyone with an isolated plant room or a greenhouse. Cacao needs humidity, preferably above 70% at all times. It also needs temperatures around 70-80 degrees. Keep it watered (but not waterlogged) and you will likely have a vigorous, healthy plant. If it is your aim to grow cacao fruits indoors, you may need two plants to accomplish this, as cacao is 90% self-sterile.
Medicinal Uses: Cacao has a rich history of medicinal applications, and 16th century texts from post-European contact describe nealry 100 tonic benefits/uses aside from a food. The fermented, dried seeds are considered an aphrodisiac, and for this purpose it was revered by the Maya and Aztec. Chocolate is known to promote positive thinking and feelings of love for its unique chemical and nutritive composition which promotes a certain amorous and energetic brain activity (attributed to the psychoactive alkaloids theobromine and caffeine).
Cacao leaves have found a few medicinal uses. Infusions of the leaves are used as a cardiotonic and diuretic. Cacao fats (butters) have been used in many skin care products and are a main ingredient in many suppositories (a suprisingly little known fact…).
Nutritional Information: Chocolate has many health benefits in any form. The widespread candy chocolates of commerce are, unfortunately, the least healthy form. Cocoa powder is perhaps the most healthy form of processed chocolate, being low in fat and high in antioxidants, and having many essential minerals. Cacao nibs, the raw form of cacao, are uncooked, unprocessed and most truly preserve the significant nutritional integrity of the seed. Raw cacao has a robust, rich and extensive chocolate taste which many people find delightful.
Chocolate is perhaps the highest widespread food source of the mineral magnesium, a mineral crucial to muscle and nervous system function. The seeds are also quite high in copper, sulfur, and vitamin C. Cacao’s mildly euphoric properties have been linked to the presence of theobromine and small amounts of phenethylamine, isoquinoline, and anandamide, which has been found to bind to the same neuroreceptors as THC, the active constituent of marijuana.
Preparation / Food: Cacao is eaten in so many different ways it is difficult to list them all. Candy chocolates are known and beloved worldwide. Chocolate ice creams, cookies, and cakes are also quite common.
Raw cacao has been getting a lot of attention in health food circles. Some people grind raw cacao and use it just like cocoa powder. It has a robust, bitter chocolate taste. Other people grind the beans with their coffee and make a truly outstanding mocha.