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Growing Cacao

Inside a cacao pod.  Image from Wikimedia CommonsIt was called Chocolātl, a bitter, foamy mix of spices and cornmeal, created with the grindings of an odd bean that was believed to be the gift of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, given to bring wisdom to the user. The bean was found in the viscous insides of a pod growing out of the bark of an odd tree that grew under the jungle canopy, preferring only peripheral light from the sun.  Today, we call the tree cocoa, and the end product chocolate.

Somehow, for all of its commonplace availability, chocolate still retains a bit of exotic allure.  Most people have no real idea where it comes from (other than from a “bean”), and have never seen one growing.  It melts at the the human body temperature, literally melting in our mouths, and satisfies on some of our core appetites.  All of that said, the tree and the cacao are truly quite a bit different than the resulting candies in the grocery aisles.

cocoa1We bought our chocolate plant at a University of Southern Florida Botanical Garden event on June 14, 2014, when it was perhaps 24 inches tall.  The cacao tree is a native of Central and South America and likes to live out of direct light, and in year-round humid conditions, which is not a precise fit for a Central Florida backyard, but we wanted to take on the challenge.  You don’t, after all, see chocolate trees every day.  That said, they have been around for a very long time.

The Mayans, after all, also considered cocoa food of the gods, and the Aztecs made a drink out of for royalty, as well as mixes for the common man. See here. Indeed, “cacao” may actually be from an Olmec word, which is even more ancient than both cultures.  Regardless, it seems to have been an aphrodisiac from the start.

That said, it’s a curious plant, the pods that have the beans grow out of the bark of the mature tree. Inside are the cocoa “beans” surrounded by the cocoa butter.  The beans, without a good amount of processing, are bitter and do not hint of any use as candy.  The “butter” was likely more useful originally, but ancient alcohol mixes with the cocoa bean have been found, and it would become the star ingredient.  See here.  Technically, the tree is theobroma cacao and the raw, unroasted beans are cacao, after processing they are often called cocoa, though this is all rather loosely defined, in English anyhow. See here.  (“Coca” however, is very wrong, referring instead to erythroxylum coca, the cocaine plant which is, of course, a whole other story. Of note: See the story with Coca Cola here.)

cocoa2We put ours under the back patio (our makeshift jungle canopy) in the summer and have been bringing it in if the lows get below 50F or so.  This is a picture from the end of summer, in its usual spot, surrounded by sweet potatoes from the garden.  This has been pretty successful, with the bottom leaves occassionally drying up and coming off, but with top ones always coming in.  From the original 24 inches, it’s now 47 inches eight months later, so it seems content.  It will need to get quite a bit bigger before there’s a chance of it making cacao pods.

There’s an interesting video here where they explain how to grow cacao and later how the lower leaves seem to brown regardless of what you do.  He seems to think its the water, which I doubt, but it’s interesting take on the plant in general.

That’s all to report for know, but we’ll keep you updated if we get pods in the next year or so.