The Tree
The Cacao Tree
[description], [habitat], [reproduction].

Description of the Cacao Tree

Theobroma cacao is a small understory tree native to the American tropical rainforest, which has evolved to utilize the shade of the heavy

Cacao Tree (Crillo)
(from chocovic.es)
canopy. It originated in clumps along riverbanks in the Amazon basin on the eastern equatorial slopes of the Andes.

The Cacao Tree is a shade tolerant, moisture loving, understory rainforest tree. It naturally favors riparian zones so often in the wild is found along rivers. The trees live for up to 100 years, but cultivated trees are considered economically productive for only about 60 years.

When grown naturally from seed the tree has a 2 meter deep taproot -- however in cultivation, most plantations use vegetative reproduction (cuttings) and that results in a tree without the taproot. Naturally Cacao grows to a height of 15 meters, but cultivated trees are trimmed shorter to make harvesting easier. The main stem of the tree is called the Chupon and the leaves budding off of the chupon (where a fruit was) are a fan. When grown from seed, the Chupon grows single for 1.5 meters and then spreads into layers.

The leaves of Cacao are smooth bright green, oblong, about 15cm by 8cm. It is deciduous, it looses it's leaves, with new leaf growth in spurts 2 to 4 times a year. Shade leaves are longer than sun leaves in canopy area. Young leaves are reddish, making them less affected by the intense tropical sun and hang vertically to minimize sun damage. What is really fascinating about Cacao leaves is that they can move 90 degrees from vertical to horizontal and back to get better sun access and to protect young leaves! This is done with a node at the base of the leaf which changes its stiffness with temperature.

Habitat and Range of the Cacao Tree

Naturally Cacao grows under heavy rainforest canopy, it is cultivated underneath Banana or Casaca (Tapioca) or other large leaf, tree-like, grasses. It has unusually deep roots for a rainforest tree because it naturally tends to grow in the riparian zone. It requires a deep, slightly acidic, moist, well drained soil. In poorer soils, the low shade of the banana is ineffective and the high overhead shade of the canopy is required.

The Cacao Tree grows in lowland tropical forests with little seasonality. It needs a consistent climate: temperatures of 21 to 32 degrees Celsius year round -- never lower than 15 C, and 100 to 250 cm of rainfall, well distributed throughout the year with no month less than 10 cm. It grows only below 1000 meters of elevation, and usually below 300 meters. All of this means that it grows only in the tropics -- almost exclusively within 10 degrees latitude of the Equator and only in places that are not too mountainous and do not have monsoons or droughts.

The largest number of species are found in northwestern South America, where the tree is native. However over half of the world supply of commercial Cacao comes from two East African countries: Cote D'Ivorie (Ivory coast) exports 41%, and it's neighbor, Ghana 13% of the world's supply.

Indonesia is third in world exports at 11%. Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela export significant amounts. And Cacao is also cultivated for export in Columbia, Congo/Zaire, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Gabon, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Malaysia, south central Mexico, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Sau Tome, Sierra Leone, Togo, Trinidad and Western Samoa.

Unlike the two other popular drugs that grow in the tropics, coffee and coca, Cacao is not horribly damaging to the rainforest -- it doesn't require open land and in fact, requires the shade of the jungle to grow, although commercial plantations a usually clear of some or all of the forest to make it easier to harvest the pods.

As with Coffee, Cacao is a crop that is grown in extremely poor areas with hot climates and manufactured into a product that is generally consumed in very wealthy areas with cool climates.

Reproduction: fruit, flower & pollination

The flowers (and the fruit) are on the trunk of the tree, and it flowers (and fruits) all year long. This means that Cacao has the very unusual quality of Cacao Flowers having flowers and fruit on the tree at the same time!! It takes a long time, 5 to 8 months, to progress from blossom bud to ripe fruit. On cultivated Cacao plantations, only 3 out of 1000 flowers are pollinated, fertilized and progress to fruit!

There are a great many flowers, often waves of flowers covering the main stem of the tree! The white flowers are odorless . There are more flowers at the end of season than at the beginning. Cacao is pollinated by midges (gnat-like insects) and occasionally by bats. Pollination usually occurs in the morning and the flowers die in 24 hrs if not pollinated!

Although hermaphroditic, Cacao Flowers are self-incompatible, they cannot fertilize themselves. This creates a much healthier stock in the wild, but is terribly frustrating to plantation owners who cultivate Cacao. single Cacao Flower

It turns out that the Cacao plantations themselves are the reason for the extremely low fertilization rate of the Cacao Flowers, and the potential Chocolate shortage that Chocolate companies are always warning against.

The insects that pollinate Cacao live in the rainforest. They require humid shade with a wide range of species and decaying matter on the ground; the natural habitat of Cacao. The midges have no reason to venture far from home into the sunny, dry neatly kept cultivated groves of Cacao trees. "The bigger a Cacao plantation, the more it frustrates the midges in their efforts to pollinate individual Cacao Flowers." -- Allen Young, biologist Cacao has over 400 distinct smells (compare that to 14 in the rose and 7 in the onion) however cultivated Cacao has only a small percentage of those, leaving the midges even more confused!

Luckily some Fair Trade and organic Cacao farmers are working with the trees instead of against them. Smaller and more wild plantations are better for the trees, better for the Chocolate, and better for the workers as well. (See the Fair Trade section.)

Like most high production food plants, Cacao was almost certainly engineered to produce large and plentiful fruit by the natives of the area many hundreds (or thousands) of years ago. The seeds in these fruit were valued highly by the people living in that region, as well as their northern neighbors. They continue to be highly valued today.

The seeds are encased in a large colorful pod which grows close to the tree
Cacao Pod
Cacao Pod
from chocovic.es
after a flower. The large pod is green while maturing and and turns yellow, orange, red or purple when ripe (some varieties are still green when ripe). The pods vary significantly in size, shape and texture. They range from about 10 cm to greater than 40 cm in length! They have 5 to 10 veins or longitudinal ridges and are spherical to oblong, shaped roughly like an American football.

Fruits are produced throughout the year, simultaneous with more flowering. It takes take 4 to 5 months to achieve the pod size, and then yet another month to ripen!

A ripe pod can be left on the tree for 2 or 3 weeks without spoiling. It is important for the flavor that it is harvested only when ripe, although it will not open and lose it's seeds when overripe. If separated from the pod the seeds soon become infertile, but retain their fertility for a long time within the pod.

The pulp of the fruit is edible, but it is NOTHING like Chocolate. It is yellow, slippery and sweet and a bit less dense than an apple. I have seen it described as vaguely lemony, although some have suggested it tastes a bit like mango. I have never had it, but i'd love to try it!

Seeds are dispersed by monkeys and other small mammals which break through the pod wall to eat the pulp.

[description], [habitat], [reproduction].

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