We can grow so many unusual plants in our South Florida enclave. Even while most of the country — indeed some of Florida — is frozen, we can grow all but the most tender tropical plants out of doors. But did you ever think of growing your own chocolate? While it won’t produce little foil-covered bars, the Theobroma cacao tree does indeed produce the foundation for chocolate.
Its genus name, Theobroma, means something like “food of the gods.” The ancient Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs certainly considered it so. They discovered more than 2,500 years ago that the seeds of the tree could be fermented, roasted and ground into a drink, often mixing it with spices, honey or ground corn. The Mayans even exchanged the valuable cacao during wedding ceremonies — a precursor to Valentine’s Day, perhaps?
The Aztec emperor Montezuma reportedly drank chocolate many times daily from a solid gold cup. The caffeine cacao contains must have made an impact.
Columbus encountered cacao seeds on his fourth and last voyage to the new world in 1502 and recognized their value to the native people trading them. He sent some seeds back to Spain, but their potential was not realized.
It took explorer Hernando Cortez to introduce the chocolate bug back home. The imbibing of cacao spread to Europe and flourished there after being introduced to the Spanish monarchy, who ameliorated its bitterness with sugar. However it took until 1847 to solidify chocolate, when the renowned chocolatiers Fry and Sons of England made the world’s first chocolate bar. Humanity should be eternally grateful.
Native to the upper Amazon Basin, cacao trees are evergreen, and grow to about 15-20 feet. They are understory plants and therefore prefer shade and humidity.
At Fairchild, cacao grows in our Tropical Plant Conservatory, but another cacao tree grows outdoors in our rainforest area and looks to be thriving just as well. The recent chilly weather seems to have caused some damage to the leading edges of some of the leaves, but otherwise it’s beautiful. Drying winds are something to watch out for, but the windy weather accompanying our recent cold front was anything but dry.
The cacao’s flowers are small, pale pink to white, and do not hint at the large fruit to come. Both our indoor and outdoor trees are producing fruit, which appears in the form of large yellow-green pods that grow directly out of the trunk and woody branches, a trait known as cauliflory. These football-shaped pods are what contain the cacao seeds, themselves surrounded by a translucent white pulp.
The tree will flower and produce fruit all year long. The leaves are a pretty glossy dark green, elliptical and smooth with a feel a lot like onionskin paper.
You may have read about cacao nibs used as an ingredient in confections, and of their possible health benefits and antioxidant qualities. They are basically just the cacao seeds, roasted and hulled. They are what would be ground into a paste and mixed with sugar and other ingredients to become chocolate. On their own, however, cacao nibs are not sweet, but rather slightly nutty, bitter and crunchy like roasted coffee beans.
Theobroma cacao trees need shade and only filtered sun (especially shade for tender seedlings), very high humidity, and rich but well-draining soil as it does not like wet feet. Those conditions are difficult to maintain, except in the tropics, and with a little care, South Florida.
• Interested in buying a cacao tree and learning more about chocolate in general? Come to Fairchild’s eighth annual Chocolate Festival on Jan. 24-26.
Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden