Cacao can be grown in parts of Florida and Hawaii where the climate is warm. In other areas, it’s possible to grow cacao in a sheltered environment. Mexican farmers have managed to grow cacao trees successfully, and there are cacao trees present in many botanical gardens located along the west coast of the United States. These gardens are usually large with high humidity, which creates an ideal environment for the cacao tree to thrive.
What’s more rewarding than growing your own chocolate, though? Although, cocoa is not your typical houseplant. It has very specific requirements. This plant will take a lot of preparation, love, and creativity to grow well. Yes, it will all be worth it in the end. If you love chocolate and gardening, you can grow your own cacao tree!
ALL ABOUT THE CACAO TREE
Scientific Name: Theobroma cacao subsp. cacao and. T. cacao subsp. sphaerocarpum
Cocoa and chocolate come from the beans of the cacao tree. The trees are found in the tropical regions of South and Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Related Species: cola nut (Cola acuminata)
Origin: Central and northern South America.
Distribution: Grown throughout the tropical world.
The indigenous people of Central and South America have been harvesting and using cacao, or cocoa, for thousands of years. Cocoa was introduced to Europe during the 16th century. In 1825-1828, technology was developed to separate the cocoa butter from dried beans, which led to the manufacture of solid chocolate. The invention of milk chocolate led to the worldwide chocolate processing industry.
Although the Criollo cocoa is still consumed in the small quantities, Forastero makes up the great majority of the world’s cocoa production There are two different types of cocoa: Criollo types (sweet cocoa) that developed north of the Panama isthmus, and Forastero (‘bitter cocoa’) that originated in the Amazon basin. Although Criollo cocoa is still consumed in small quantities, Forastero makes up the great majority of the world’s cocoa production. The criollo type of cocoa bean was cultivated by the indigenous people of Central and South America. This is the type of cocoa bean that Europeans were first exposed to. The commercial production of Amelonado cocoa beans began in Brazil. The Trinitario hybrid was created in Trinidad from two types of cacao that were distributed throughout the Caribbean and hybridized there. The Spanish explorers brought cocoa to the Philippines, and it eventually spread to southeast Asia, India, and Ceylon. Amelonado cocoa was taken to West Africa.
Cocoa is a significant crop that is grown in a large number of countries and provides a significant economic boost worth billions of dollars annually.
If you’re interested in growing cocoa plants, be aware that they require hot, humid conditions and evenly distributed rainfall. Tropical areas are areas where the temperatures are 68°F or above all year round, and there are no temperatures below freezing. Cocoa plants can be grown in well-protected areas and make interesting additions to the home landscape.
Cocoa trees are small to medium sized, and only have a few branches in tropical environments.
Leaves are found toward the ends of the branches. Leaves are attached to the plant by a long stem, which has a swollen area at each end called a pulvinus. The pulvinus is a specialised tissue that allows the leaf to pivot so that it can catch the sunlight. The leaves of the plant are long and thin, brightly coloured green, and can be up to 61 cm long by 10 cm wide. Young leaves have a pinkish-red color. They turn green as they mature. As the plant grows and produces new leaves, the older leaves may drop off.
The flowers and fruits appear on the new growth. Cocoa flowers and fruits grow on the older branches and trunk (called cauliflorous flowering) as well as on the new growth. Flowers arise from a special tissue called the cushion, which is located along the leafless parts of the stem. Flowers may arise from this cushion repeatedly. The flowers are small with five petals and sepals. There are 10 stamens in each flower. They have both male and female plant parts.
It takes 5 to 7 months or more for the fruit to develop from being pollinated to becoming a fully developed pod. The pod has a thick peel and may be 10-33 cm long. It can be either cylindrical or round-shaped, with longitudinal ribs. The color of the pod may be green or green-white, and it may turn yellow when it ripens. Alternatively, the pod may be red and develop some yellow color when it ripens. The pods are very attractive from an ornamental standpoint. Pods contain 20 to 60 seeds. The seeds are coated with a sticky substance that is white, pink, or brown in color and has a mildly acidic taste. The seeds can be taken out, and the slimy stuff around the seed can be eaten. The seeds are processed to make chocolate.
Cocoa is pollinated by crawling and flying insects. Some types and varieties of cocoa cannot pollinate themselves and need to be cross-pollinated with a compatible variety.
The tap root of a seedling cocoa tree can extend several feet in deep soils. The main trunk of the tree also has thinner, shallower roots spreading out from it horizontally. These are the roots primarily responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the ground.
There are two main types of cocoa, Criollo and Amazonian Forastero. Criollo types of cacao beans are native to Central America. They have long, narrow pods and a red or green peel with longitudinal furrows. Forastero cocoa beans are grown mainly in South America, Africa, and Indonesia. The beans have an oval shape and are ridged with shallow, narrow furrows. Two types of cocoa have been crossed in Trinidad, forming hybrids called Trinitario. Trinitario cocoa beans are a hybrid of the Criollo and Forestero varieties and have characteristics of both. Cocoa types will not set fruit from self-pollination or from specific other varieties or clones. The Amelonado variety of cocoa bean is self-compatible, meaning it can set fruit from its own pollen. It is selected from the Forastero types.
Cocoa developed from a tree that grew in the shady areas of hot, humid, tropical rain forests. These areas usually had a lot of clouds and got rainy often, but also had a short dry season. South Florida’s climate is not ideal for cocoa plants, which can be damaged or killed by prolonged cool temperatures or brief freezes.
Cocoa grows best at temperatures between 65 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the plant may die. If the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the plant’s growth will be limited. Flowering will not occur if the temperature is below 68°F (20°C).
Cocoa requires water throughout the year and will benefit from additional watering during dry periods. Drought conditions can cause leaves and flowers to fall off the plant, as well as reduce the quality and quantity of fruit produced.
Cocoa functions best when grown in an environment with 25% shade. This plant can be placed next to taller structures or underneath canopies of overhanging trees. Cocoa planted in deep shade usually doesn’t grow well and isn’t very productive.
Cocoa should only be planted in areas where it is protected from the wind. It does not do well in windy conditions.
Cacao can be grown from seeds. It grows extremely quickly. Within the first 30 days of the sprouting process, the trees that have been planted can reach up to one foot in height. The tree will not bear fruit until it reaches maturity, which takes around five years of flowering. The young leaves on cocoa plants will appear reddish at first but will gradually turn green. Since cacao trees like hot and humid tropical climates, there are few areas where they can be grown outside of a greenhouse in the United States. The seeds of the fruit are large and need to be peeled away from the white outer pulp before planting. Plant the seed at a depth of at least two times the size of the bean. This will give the bean the room it needs to grow roots and emerge from the ground. To keep the plant healthy, water it regularly and place it in a hot, humid environment. Your seed should sprout within a week.
Cacao trees grow quickly and can prosper if they have ideal conditions. Read on to learn about its specific requirements.
SUN AND TEMPERATURE
Cacao plants can endure both full sun and partial shade. In their natural environment, they grow in the understory and thus can survive with as little as 3 hours of direct sunlight per day. This plant can grow outside in areas that experience USDA growing zones 11-13. This plant is very delicate and can easily be killed by cold weather. It does best in warm weather, between 65 and 90 degrees. Temperatures that are above 90 degrees can have a negative effect on the plant’s growth rate and can cause the flowers to drop. Additionally, it can also cause the fruits to fail to form. To protect this plant from the cold, grow it in warm regions. Because they need specific temperatures, greenhouse growing is a great option for these plants.
WATER AND HUMIDITY
Cacao trees thrive in hot and humid environments. Tropical rainforests are where they come from, so their foliage is used to getting a lot of rain and moisture. Once a week, waters your cacao tree deeply to ensure underground moisture. To get the most fruits from your plant, water it 1-2 inches per week. A slow drenching of the soil works best. This will help keep the soil moist by creating a humid environment, preventing it from drying out too quickly.
Cacao trees require loamy, moisture-retentive, well-draining media. A mix of potting soil and peat moss or coco coir helps keep the soil evenly moist. This tree is adaptable and can grow in different types of soil, but it prefers slightly acidic soil. Amend the top 4-8 inches of soil with plenty of compost and organic matter prior to planting. Cover the ground around the tree with wood chips, being careful not to pile them too close to the tree’s trunk.
Apply fertilizer to young trees twice a year, once in spring and again in fall. A younger plant will grow more if you use a well-balanced fertilizer that is slightly high in nitrogen. After the cacao tree has fully grown, stop using nitrogen fertilizer. If you want your tree to focus on forming flowers and fruits, you should reduce the amount of nitrogen you are giving it.
Cacao trees can grow 20-30 ft above the ground. It will begin to branch out once it grows a 5-6 ft tall trunk. Right now is a great time to do some pruning and shaping if you want to control the size and height of your plant. However, you don’t have to do any pruning if you don’t want to.
Before pruning, newly planted trees should be allowed to grow to 1 to 2 ft (0.3–0.6 m). If the plant is not branching, then cut the top off to encourage branching. You should allow three to four main branches to develop. Remove all others.
The height of the plant should be between 6 to 8 ft (1.8–2.4 m) to make it easier to take care of the plant and to protect it from harsh winds, excessive light, and cold temperatures. Every once in a while, you should cut back some of the branches to let more light and air in. This will increase pod production and reduce the incidence of fungal diseases. Damaged or diseased branches should also be removed regularly.
Cacao can be propagated via stem cuttings. Be sure to cut a section of the stem that has 5 leaves and 1-2 flower buds. Place the cutting in a glass of water and wait until tiny white roots form. This should take about a week. After the roots have developed, you can transplant the cutting into the ground. After a few weeks, your new cacao tree should be settled in.
HARVESTING AND STORING
Your chocolate is ready to harvest when the cacao pods turn yellow or red and start to split open. It’s time to harvest your chocolate when the cacao pods turn yellow or red and start to split open. The final product of your cacao beans processing will be either chocolate or something similar to it.
Cacao pods begin as green and mature into an orange-yellow. It is important to harvest the pod when it is ripe and has progressed beyond a yellow hue. Delaying planting can cause the seeds to germinate prematurely. When the pod is ripe, the color will deepen into an orange or red (depending on the variety). If you shake the pod, you will hear the beans rattle inside. Each pod can contain up to 50 cocoa beans. To remove the beans from the pod, break open the pod with a hammer or mallet. Each bean will be surrounded by a white pulp. After the beans are harvested, they usually go through a fermentation process before being stored.
You can eat raw cacao beans as is or roast them to bring out a citrusy flavor. Although they are not typically eaten raw, cocoa beans usually go through a fermentation process before being made into different chocolate products. The fermentation process is caused by the yeasts that are on the white part of the fruit. After the beans are harvested, they are left out in the open air to ferment for somewhere between six and ten days. As the beans ferment, they will change colors from white to purple to red. After they are dried, they can be stored for later. After beans are harvested, they can be stored in refrigeration for up to a week before being fermented.
INSECT PESTS AND DISEASES
Cocoa plants are vulnerable to attack from numerous insects and diseases, but since cocoa is not often grown in south Florida, the insects may not be completely eliminated. It is recommended that you speak to your local UF/IFAS Extension agent for information on current control methods.
Disease problems in south Florida may be reduced because cocoa is not often grown there, although they will not be completely gone. Common Florida Phytophthora species are known to attack cocoa plant leaves, roots, shoots, and pods. Several pod-rotting fungi may be present in Florida. Do not grow new cocoa plants from mother plants that show signs of distorted growth. The distorted growth may indicate a viral infection.