The cacao tree
The plant of the gods.
The Swedish natural scientist and cocoa connoisseur Carolus Linnaeus gave the cacao tree its name in 1753: Theobroma cacao L.; Theobroma roughly means “food of the gods”.
The tree belongs to the mallows, a family of plants which originates in Central and South America. A humid, warm climate around 20 degrees above or below the equator is its ideal environment.
The cacao tree is gnarled, with a wide crown of sword-like, shiny leaves, and grows up to 15 metres high, though trees in plantations are supported at a height of 4 to 8 metres. An understory tree, it grows in the shade of larger plants such as bananas or coconut palms, known as “mothers of cocoa”, protecting it against the sun, wind and erosion.
Depending on the species, it may start to flower when it is between 18 months and 3 years old. The delicate flowers grow in clusters throughout the year on the leafless trunk or the thicker branches at the bottom of the tree. Every year, a tree can produce between 50,000 and 100,000 flowers. As only about 6% of flowers are naturally pollinated, this is assisted manually.
The result of successful pollination is the cacao fruit. This is usually known as a pod, though in botanical terms it is a drupe. It takes 5 to 6 months to reach maturity. The fruits start out green, then turn yellow, red or purple depending on the level of maturity and variety. Unusually, the cacao tree simultaneously bears flowers and fruits at different stages of maturity.
Inside these cacao pods, surrounded by the white flesh (pulp), are the cacao seeds. The kernel is made up of cotyledons; the embryonic leaves which contain all the nutrients the young cocoa plant needs for its development. Every year, a tree has around 20 to 30 fruit, and in good years up to 50.
During harvesting, the cacao pods must be cut off very carefully without cutting off the fruit buds on the tree, as new flowers will emerge from them. Incidentally, overripe fruits do not drop off the cacao tree. To be naturally spread, the pods have to be eaten by animals so that the seeds are dispersed. After about forty years, a cacao tree is normally past its prime and is replaced by a new one.
Every year, a tree has around 20 to 30 fruit, and in good years up to 50.
Today, three main varieties of cacao are planted: the strong, hardy Forastero, known as ordinary or bulk cocoa, the expensive Criollo – a “fine or flavour” cocoa with intense flavouring and scent – and the robust, aromatic Trinitario – a hybrid between the two varieties which counts as both a fine or flavour cocoa and a bulk cocoa.