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Chocolate really does grow on trees.Here’s how to do it.

Cacao Crioyo, a self-fertilizing type grown at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Cacao Crioyo, a self-fertilizing type grown at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Chocolate really does grow on trees, although not as little chocolates. Chocolate comes from the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, a tropical rainforest tree.

Produced from seeds of the cacao plant, chocolate is an ancient crop from deep in the forests of Central and South America. It was originally used to make a medicinal beverage that chocolate lovers of today would scarcely recognize. Modern chocolate is sweetened and crafted into rich and varied flavors.

Today, cacao plants are cultivated in rainforest habitats throughout the tropics.

Cacao trees grow and bear fruit in the region around the equator. They thrive on tropical rains and partial shade. A thick layer of leaf litter or compost and a still, moist environment are ideal for the cacao tree. Although Miami is a few degrees north of that tropical band, cacao can be grown in South Florida given attention to a few specific conditions.

If you want to experience growing your own and you are up for a “green” challenge, then consider growing a cacao tree. Growing cacao plants at home is a rewarding experience that will help you learn and appreciate the work involved in its production. Start from your own seeds, which are easy to propagate, or you can find plants in local nurseries.

GROWING CACAO TREES IN SOUTH FLORIDA

Select an area protected from wind. Growing cacao plants under the protection of mature canopy trees is an option as they are tolerant of shade. Select a part of the landscape adjacent to buildings and structures but away from power lines.

Selecting a tree: Cacao plants are produced by nurseries in Florida; however, make sure you choose a grafted tree. A plant that is not self-fertilizing may result in little to no pod production. The solution then is to plant two or more compatible varieties near each other.

There are two distinct types of cacao: Criollo types (cacao dulce), which developed north of the Panama isthmus, and Forastero (cacao amargo), which originated in the Amazon basin.

Planting a tree: Cacao grows in well-drained soil. South Florida’s rocky soil drains well but lacks many of the nutrients that the cacao needs to grow successfully. Dig a big hole two feet deep to allow the development of a good root system. Plant the tree and fill with nutrient-rich soil. This will provide coarse particles to leave free space for roots with a reasonable quantity of nutrients.

Time to production: The cacao tree will bear in four years. Time from flower pollination to a fully developed pod takes five to seven months or more. The pod may be green or green-white, turning yellow upon ripening, or it may be red and develop some yellow color upon ripening, depending on the varieties.

Cold protection: Additional cold protection should be provided to young trees. Watering the cacao tree before a freeze can help protect it. Well-watered soil will absorb more solar radiation than dry soil and will re-radiate heat during the night.

Coverings are another option — cloth sheets, quilts or black plastic. It is necessary to remove plastic covers during a sunny day or provide ventilation of trapped solar radiation. Coverings protect more from frost than from extreme cold. Covers that extend to the ground and are not in contact with plant foliage can lessen cold injury by reducing radiant heat loss from the plant and the ground.

Pruning should be delayed until new growth appears, to ensure that live wood is not removed. Dead, unsightly leaves may be removed as soon as they turn brown after a freeze if a high level of maintenance is desired. Prune dead branches behind the point of discoloration. Cacao trees can become moderately large if not pruned to contain their size. Select the warmest area of the landscape (usually the south side) that does not flood or remain wet after typical summer rainfall.

Fertilizing: Use a granular 8-3-9 in February, June, August and October. Spread lightly around the drip line and use a foliar minor element spray and chelated iron drench in June and August. Mulching cacao trees in the home landscape is recommended. Watering is essential for best cacao plant growth and fruit production.

Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Chocolate Festival

What: Fairchild’s 11th annual International Chocolate Festival, including tastings, lectures and demonstrations

When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday

Where: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables

Cost: Included in Fairchild admission: adults $25, seniors 65+ $18, children 6-17 $12, children 5 and under free, members free

Information: 305-667-1651; www.fairchildgarden.org, click on Events & Community Outreach

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