Basic Botany: Theobroma cacao

Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was the one who chose to name the cacao plant Theobroma cacao. Considering the historic popularity of chocolate, the choice of Theobroma (“food of the gods” in Latin) is highly understandable.

For current consumers of chocolate, little is known about the plant behind the popular sweet. This should be remedied, as cacao is serious business. The World Cacao Foundation calculated the world cacao production to be around 4.8 million metric tons at the end of 2012. The report also noted that nearly 50 million people depend on cacao for their livelihoods.

The window of opportunity for cacao growing is comparatively small: most cacao farms are situated 15 to 20 degrees of latitude from the equator because, having originated from the lower Amazon basin, Theobroma cacao grows best in warm temperatures and with relatively high humidity. Currently, most cacao is grown in the West African nations like Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire.

Map Highlighting Prominent Cacao Growing Countriesbg-www-mapSource:

Theobroma cacao is a small, 13-26 ft. tall, tree. Historically, three varieties of cacao have been recognized- Criollo, Forastero, and Trinidad. The Forastero variety is now known to include over 9 genetically separate varieties (The New Taste of Chocolate, 2001). All Theobroma cocao plants can be easily identified by their thick leaves and a property known as cauliflory: the growth of fruit and flowers off the main trunk of a plant rather than offshoots. It flowers and produces cacao pods year round, but there are usually two distinct harvesting seasons.

Theobroma cacao, aka the cacao tree, covered in podsCacao-TreeSource:

With proper care, cacao trees reach peak pod production around their fifth year and can maintain this level for up to ten years (The World Cocoa Foundation, 2012). The pods of Theobroma cacao come in a wide array of vibrant colors: yellow to magenta. They contain, depending on the variety of cacao, 20-50 seeds attached to a central placenta. A white pulp, baba, surrounds the beans. These seeds can be ground up and processed with sugar and various spices to create chocolate.

Unfortunately for chocolate lovers everywhere, cacao trees are affected by a wide range of diseases. Witches’ Broom (Moniliophthora perniciosa), Frosty Pod Rot (Moniliophthora roreri), and Vascular-streak dieback (VSD) (Oncobasidium theobroma), as well as a myriad of insects routinely threaten the crop. The International Cocoa Organization estimated that this combination of disease and pests damages around 30 to 40% of the cacao crop each year. The main methods of controlling disease include pruning, the removal of infested pods, and the maintenance of appropriate spacing between trees. Fungicide can also be applied. Biological control is advocated to reduce insect pests.

Cacao pods affected by frosty pod rot (Moniliophthora roreri)Cacao_Fig17


However, popular methods of protecting Theobroma cacao won’t keep the plant safe forever. The sensitivity of the cacao trees, mentioned above in relation to growth conditions, also means Theobroma cacao is extremely sensitive to weather patterns. As reported by the World Cocoa Foundation, the increasing periods of drought and excessive rain due to climate change will negatively impact the crop.

There’s a lot more to be said about and explored with Theobroma cacao. And it’s important that people care enough to say and explore more; to maintain current levels of consumption, we must work to further our understanding of this plant and to protect it. Thankfully, asking people to care about cacao shouldn’t be too difficult. Chocolate’s a lovable thing.



Works / Reference Cited

Presilla Maricel.“The New Taste of Chocolate”. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001.

“Cocoa Market Price Trends.” West African Studies Regional Atlas on West Africa: 1 Apr. 2014. Accessed 17 Feb. 2016.

“Pests and Diseases” International Cocoa Organization: 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed February 17th, 2016.



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