Where does cocoa tree grow?
Cocoa tree was literary unknown to the Europe and Western World until about 16 century, when Spanish conquestors started to explore the New World (America).
In 18 century, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, named cocoa tree ‘Theobroma’, meaning the ‘food of the gods’. This was because the Aztecs referred to the tree as the tree which fruits are worthy food for the gods. The full botanical name is ‘Theobroma cacao’.
Cocoa trees needs a constant climate – humid air, damp soil and temperature that’s constantly around 20C.
Because of that cocoa trees only grow around the Equator (up to 20 degrees north or south). The main areas and countries growing cocoa are: Ivory Coast, Peru, Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, Cameroon, Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The plant doesn’t cope well with extreme weather such as storms or direct sun. This is why cacao trees are planted in the shade of other taller trees, such as banana, monkey bread or citrus trees.
Cocoa tree flowers grow directly from the old parts of the tree trunk, which is very unusual in the botanic world.
The wild form of the cocoa tree grows in Rio Negro region, close to Amazon river in South America. In the wild, the plant grows up to 15 metres, but under cultivation, it’s usually restricted to about 8 metres to help with harvesting.
How cocoa tree defines nature
I always think, that the cocoa tree defines the nature and basically does everything to prevent it from bearing any fruit at all! Just think about it:
The cocoa tree usually starts to flower from it’s 5th year, but doesn’t produce much fruit until it’s 10th year.
The flowers itself don’t produce scent, which means that only certain (and very small amount!) of insect can pollinate the flowers. The flowers also need to be pollinated within a few hours of the blossoms opening.
In the wild, this means that less than 5% of the blossoms that open are pollinated naturally. Where cocoa tree is grown commercially, this can’t be left to chance, so all blossoms are pollinated by the plantation workers with special hand brushes.
The cocoa pod
After all that, it takes further 5-6 months for the cocoa pod to actually grow and ripen.
At least, there is no growing season with cocoa tree as such, because it can simultaneously blossom, produce leaf and fruits. Again, this is quite unusual in the botanic world.
The cocoa pods can reach size anything between 15 – 35 cm and can weight up to 500g.
Each cocoa pod has about 50 seeds tightly packed in a pulp. When the cocoa pods ripen, the seeds reveal kernels – reddish brown with oily texture and aromatic, but bitter taste.
Each cocoa tree can produce up to 2kg of cocoa beans each year.
Cocoa tree variety
Theobroma cacao has two main varieties – Criollo and Forastero
Criollo is native to Ecuador and Venezuela, where it grows in high altitudes with high rainfall. The plant itself doesn’t produce the most fruits, but it produces the best and the most expensive type of cocoa. It’s mainly used to make dark chocolate.
Forastero, produces most of the cocoa that we know. The tree is happy at lower altitudes and it’s much more productive then the Criollo tree.
More than 90% of cocoa comes from plantations of Forastero and it’s hybrids. This ordinary grade of cocoa is used mainly for production of cocoa powder and milk chocolate.
I like to use so called Origins Chocolates(unblended chocolate originated from one country and sometimes even from one plantation) in our Cocoa & Heart Chocolate Workshops, but I also use a mixture of good quality blend from criollo and forastero cocoa trees.