Chocolate…the word makes our mouth water, but where does chocolate come from? In a world where the natural resource struggles to keep up with man’s demand, let’s take a look at the fascinating tree, Theobroma Cacao.
Originally chocolate was made into a spicy drink by the Aztecs somewhere between the 13th and 16th centuries. Chocolate was considered a luxury item reserved for warriors and nobility. It was often burned as incense or given as an offering during rituals and ceremonies. Cacao seeds were even used as money.
By the 16th century, chocolate had been discovered by the Spanish. They found it be bitter so they added sugar to it and kept it secret for nearly a century before the rest of Europe discovered it.
The first chocolate house was opened in London in 1657 and from there it spread like wildfire, first as a drink and then in the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Italians began to experiment with it as a food. Everything from soup to liver had chocolate added to it.
Theobroma which means “food of the gods” grows wild in the tropical rainforests of the world. Many attempts have been made to create cacao nurseries so that the production of chocolate could be increased but this has lead to the introduction of diseases, fewer pods being produced and shorter lived trees. It seems that this is one plant that nature is best left to handle on her own.
One problem with growing the tree outside its native environment is the lack of shade. Theobroma is an under story tree that prefers the shade and the rich debris from the decaying leaves and other rainforest floor materials. It is possible to get this tree to grow in a container or even in the ground in a warm climate provided you can provide the proper shade, nutrients and humidity.
The perfect growing environment for Theobroma is hot humid air with temperatures around 80 degrees F and a humidity level of 90%. Temperatures and humidity do change with temperatures as high as 96 degrees F and humidity as low as 60% although with lower humidity you will notice some browning of the leaves.
Pollination outside of the rainforest still remains a mystery. In the rainforest tiny midges pollinate the trees. Outside of the rainforest, no one is sure how the trees are pollinated. Dr. Thomas M. Antonio at the Garfield Park Conservatory claims that he tried to hand pollinate the Theobroma Trees there with no results. The trees there do produce pods which he says he is at a loss as to how they are being pollinated. The seeds are viable so something is definitely doing its job.
Cocoa mulch is often used for trees in cultivation. This mulch has a rich chocolate smell, retains moisture, blocks weeks and is available in the USA from Vita Soil at http://www.vitasoil.com It contains 2.5% nitrogen, 1% phosphate and 3% potash and is made of 100% natural organic cocoa shells. I recently added some to my cocoa tree which is kept in a container.
So, as you can see, chocolate has a rich and diverse history behind it. The tree is one I would suggest trying if you feel you can provide a proper growing environment. Generally the tree will take three to five years to produce pods which grow from the trunk of the tree and look like small footballs. If nothing else, the tree would make a fantastic conversation piece and who knows, maybe you could make your own chocolate someday.
Theobroma cacao – chocolate – is very easy to germinate as long as you have fresh seeds. Buying the entire pod is a great way to make sure the seeds are still viable as long as the pod is freshly cut off the tree. Buying individual seeds or trading for them is a little more risky. In the event the seeds you receive are dry – or dry out during shipping – they simply will not germinate. Dried seeds are good for one thing – eating.
Once you receive the pod, cut it open with a sharp knife. Make sure you do not cut too deep because there are seeds inside the pod. I gently, but firmly hold the knife so just the top edge goes in – and you will feel the difference once the knife breaks through the skin. Most pods have a skin that is about 1/4 inch thick. Once you are through the skin, position your knife so you can carefully slice around the outside of the pod. I tend to slice one side, then turn it over to slice the other side. Once the slicing is done, all you have to do is pry it open and scoop out the seeds.
I put the seeds (one seed in one folded paper towel) in a moist paper towel to germinate them. Some seeds germinate in as little as 24 hours.
Here is a video that explains the process a little more –