Published: July 7, 2016

Chocolate’s Natural Roots: The Cacao Tree

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Black and white illustration of a branch with leaves and large football-shaped pods

From chocolate chip cookies to hot cocoa, it can be easy to forget that one of our favorite sweet treats actually starts with a plant. In fact, it’s a plant that’s been around for thousands of years and is part of a lively ecosystem.

Chocolate is made from cacao, which comes from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. (The Greek word Theobroma literally translates to “food of the gods.”) This species of tree thrives in tropical rainforests in Central and South America. There, it has a special mix of conditions that it needs to grow, like humidity and shade. The cacao tree is common in several wilderness areas, and no one really knows the reason: it could be that the cacao beats out other trees in competition, or that these wild populations are the result of large-scale plantations grown hundreds of years ago.  A pod the same shape and color of a football, hanging from a tree trunk

 Cacao trees can grow up to 30 feet tall and produce large pods that are the color and shape of small footballs. These pods contain 30 to 50 seeds—enough to make about two dark chocolate or seven milk chocolate bars! But unlike the chocolate we consume, pure cacao isn’t a sweet snack. Seeds from the cacao tree are extremely bitter, which is a pretty effective survival strategy for Theobroma cacao. Animals that live near cacao trees, like monkeys, rodents, and birds, enjoy noshing on the sweet pulp that’s inside cacao pods and around the seeds (people find the pulp tasty, too; it’s sweet and tangy). But animals that eat the pulp will spit out the strong-tasting seeds, spreading them around the rainforest floor and allowing new trees to take root.

The cacao tree also has an interesting trait called cauliflory, meaning “stem flower”: the flowers grow directly out of its trunk and lower branches. This feature actually helps the tree reproduce by attracting an important pollinator. Midges, or tiny flies, are attracted to the cacao pods and leaves that fall directly around the base of the tree and begin to rot. The trees also need nitrogen-rich soil and other nutrients that come from this decaying organic material.

Today, most of the chocolate we eat comes from farms in West Africa, which has a similar equatorial climate to Central and South America. There, cacao is an exotic plant rather than one that occurs in wilderness areas like the Amazon. Cacao farmers continue to use traditional methods of cutting off the low-hanging cacao pods by hand, and farmers and scientists work together to provide fair incomes to farmers as well as protect the plant and its habitat.