How much do YOU know about the Cacao Tree?
Forget about gardenia, magnolia or jasmine. Everybody’s favorite plant is the Theobroma Cacao.
Many people are still uninformed, but the Theobroma Cacao (also called the Cacao Tree) is the root of all chocolate products. In fact, it is the plant that bears the fruit containing cacao, the raw material to make chocolate.
Let’s admit it though.
Even the biggest chocolate lovers might miss a deeper knowledge on what is going on at the early stages of their favorite food. After all, there is a reason why biology will probably never make it to the Top 5 most favorite subjects in high school. Reading about the structure and function of living organisms can be tedious and uninspiring. But there is really no need to be a biologist to get to know our dear Theobroma Cacao. Even just a basic knowledge can expand our appreciation for such an amazing plant (and especially its end result).
And who better than the Queen of Cacao Maricel Presilla to give us a much needed biology lesson?
Thanks to her exhaustive book The New Taste Of Chocolate, we have the chance to know everything on the history of cacao, its varieties, how it grows, is harvested, gets processed and finally turns into chocolate. Moreover, a lot of information is shared on the peculiarities of the Cacao Tree itself.
Here is a summary of the most basic information found in Maricel’s book about such a beloved plant.
The Theobroma Cacao is a special plant because:
- IT ONLY GROWS IN SPECIFIC PLACES OF THE EARTH – although cacao trees are now also kept in London-based greenhouses for research purposes, the Theobroma Cacao needs a tropical climate to meet its survival needs. Steamy heat, good soil drainage and regular rainfall. All desired characteristics found 20° North and South the Equator. If you take a World map and draw two lines as borders of this band, what you see will match the places of origin you read every day on the packaging of your favorite fine chocolate bars.
- IT IS AN INTRINSIC PROTECTOR OF THE ENVIRONMENT – essential to the well-being of the Cacao Tree is a good shade to keep the leaves from being burned and the soil from being baked and eroded. For this reason, farmers accurately design the surroundings of the cacao plantation with other trees that will provide a year-round shade. Small leafy trees such as yuca or coffee bushes and plantain or banana trees are put in place as first-stage shade when the cacao tree starts growing. A second “layer” of upper-story trees like coconut palms and mahogany trees is needed for when the cacao tree is ready to bear instead. This humid and steamy environment creates a complex insect life that helps pollinate the cacao tree and other plants while contributing to the biodiversity of the terroir.
- IT IS AN INDETERMINATE BLOSSOMER – the Cacao Tree puts forth flowers year-round, with one or two strong peaks per year according to region. At any given moment, white flowers can be found next to small and big cocoa pods on the trunk and main branches. It takes 4 to 5 years for the tree to start bearing fruit, and 4 to 5 months for the cacao pods to mature since its pollination. A fully grown cacao pod is from 9 to 13 inches long, can weigh up to about a pound and contains roughly 40 to 50 cacao beans.
- IT IS VERY PROMISCUOUS, BUT NOT SO FERTILE – flies are the ones responsible for the pollination of the flowers of the Cacao Tree. Cross-pollination occurs so often that this tree has gained the reputation of being a very promiscuous plant. A tree can hold many fruits fertilized by a neighbouring tree. This results in an increasing difficulty and rarity to encounter any pure forms. An exact classification of all the cacao varieties is considered pretty much a chimera (not to mention a nightmare in the trying). But no matter its year-round promiscuous appetite, only around 1/10 of the thousand of flowers on a mature tree will become pods. The low fertility of the Theobroma Cacao makes it a very delicate and high-maintenance plant.
Other curious facts that can be found in The New Taste Of Chocolate:
- To facilitate the harvesting process, cocoa farmers prune the cacao trees in a way that concentrates the future flowers and fruits on the trunk and lower parts of the main branches.
- Even when fully mature, the pods can range from bright green to pale yellow, dark purple to burnt orange or crimson. Therefore, it takes an experienced judgement to know when a cacao fruit is ready to be harvested.
- The Cacao Tree keeps on bearing fruit without interruption until the end of its life, which can be up to 100 years. However, it is usually replaced long before that time.
If you made it HERE, you are now a more aware chocolate consumer.
You know the main characteristics of the beautiful tree that gives us our favorite food. You recognize what a peculiar plant we are talking about; how long it takes and how difficult it is to grow cacao. You appreciate even more those who take care of Cacao Trees with sharp attention and expertise every day.
Chocolate will taste even better now.
What more can YOU tell us about the Cacao Tree?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.