The botanical and natural history of cacao can be appreciated through its many archival references over the last several centuries. Depictions of cacao derive from a range of disciplines–from travel, to commercial, to religious, to medical and academic. These depictions insure cacao’s legacy, a natural wonder in its own right, which are culturally and historically significant. Relevant archival references include a 1657 English botanical and medical text titled, “Adam in Eden or Nature’s Paradise” (Coles) and also depicted numerous times as nourishment and comfort within historic travel logs (Wallace, 1853). Cacao is represented through centuries old images, drawings, paintings, lithographs, and even botanically accurate glass replications commissioned for the premier school of Botany at Harvard University in the late eighteen hundreds (The Glass Flowers, 2016). The array of depictions, sometimes romantic (Figure 1) sometimes scientific, suggest the foreigners’ intrigue and conquest (De Vos, 2007), as they attempted to illustrate, understand, catalogue and characterize cacao. This appreciation of cacao is not intended to glorify the Euro-centric
Figure 1. “Theobroma cacao wild trees,” Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1867. This lithograph provides an awe-inspiring perspective for its European viewers: an exotic and romanticized depiction of cacao in situ. http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-93899620/stock-photo-theobroma-cacao-wild-trees-old-illustration-brazil-created-by-riou-published-on-le-tour-du-monde.html
perspective nor diminish the long and revered story of cacao whose time line began with the ancient Olmecs in the Gulf Coast of Mexico (Presilla, 2009, pps. 9-11) four fifths of chocolate’s history before the fall in 1521 of the Aztec capital (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 13). This brief survey is in acknowledgement of cacao’s history that began long before Spanish conquerors arrived; however, the following European depictions offer historic insight, and in their own ways, have contributed to cacao’s enduring global legacy.
Nearly two hundred years before this intriguing French lithograph of cacao in situ (Figure 1), cacao had made its way into the text of an English “Herbarist,” William Coles.
Figure 2. “Adam in Eden or Nature’s Paradise: the history of plants, fruits, herbs and flowers,” London 1657, included a chapter on cacao. https://archive.org/details/mobot31753000817574
Though not yet given scientific classification, in English it was commonly called the “Pear-bearing wholesome almond tree” (Coles, 1657, p. 44). Details of cacao (Figure 3) include, “The Temperatures” important for successful propagation, and “The Virtues” which includes, “…preserves health, it makes such as drinkie it often to become fat and corpulent, fair and amiable” (Coles, p. 45) Coles exaggerates many health claims, however, the list goes on to include anti inflammatory properties; these claims are under research today as evidenced by multiple scientific papers (Becker et al, 2013, Ruijters et al, 2014, and Sin et al, 2015). Mesoamericans knew of health benefits, and here we can imagine the European’s desire to do the same. This depiction of cacao clearly speaks to the significance of this relatively new plant to Europeans in the area of health and commerce.
Figure 3. “Of the Tree of Cacao and Chocolate,” Coles 1657: botanical “observations” of varieties of cacao, as well as “anatomical appropriations,” apothecary benefits “and all other ingenious practitioners.”
This comprehensive text is also significant on the cacao timeline within the context of The Baroque Era, when Galen’s medical theory and practice increased the interest and use of cacao in Europe (Coe and Coe, 2013, p. 126).
The following list of products and plants comes from Alfred Wallace’s travel log and lists sources known, and yet to be known, by Europeans.
Figure 4. List of products and plants including cacao from, “A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro: With an Account of the Native Tribes, and observations on the climate, geology, and natural history of the Amazon Valley,” Published London 1853, republished 1889. https://archive.org/details/narrativeoftrave00wall
Parts of the cacao tree and stages of growth can be seen in Figure 5. The pods, though not
Figure 5. “Cacaoyer (Theobroma)” including, ‘Fruit, flower, leaf and seed.’ French title translated, “The oil-bearing plants and their products and cakes.” Boery, P. (1888). Les plantes oleagineuses et leurs produits huiles et tourteaux. Baillière. Paris.
evident in the lithograph, are described in the French; “Le fruit, de couleur jaune ou rouge, est une sorte de baie,” (Boery, p. 131) noting the range of colors from yellow to red to ‘bay,’ as in the color of a berry, or like the red brown color of a horse. This study of cacao supports the value of commerce and is instructive of culinary interests as well.
Figure 6. Botanical watercolor of Theobroma cacao L., A. Bernecker, 1867.
As Figure 6 suggests, there is a beauty in cacao worthy of an artist’s rendering, as well as an intrigue as to what might be revealed inside the pod. This artist suggests a shine to the surface of lush dark green leaves, silver grey underneath, and a compact arrangement of seeds within the colorful pods. Figure 7 depicts cacao illustrated for a German encyclopedia.
Figure 7. German encyclopedia illustration of Cacao, 1922: tree w/green pods attached to trunk; leafy branch
w/blossoms&yellow fruit; cut away revealing brown seeds (no white pulp); cross section of pod;red blossom in full bloom.https://www.etsy.com/listing/243536848/cocoa-cacao-tree-original-1922-botanical
Figure 8 is a detailed botanical study drawn by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in preparation for creation of color three-dimensional glass depiction of Theobroma Cacao flower: part of an extensive collection commissioned in 1886 for teaching purposes at Harvard University.
Figure 8. Theobroma Cacao, currently at the Corning Glass Museum: used for the glass flower collection commissioned in 1886 for Harvard University. Retrieved from http://www.cmog.org/library/theobroma-cacao-l-cacao-art-original
The glass replicas of cacao, now in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, are among hundreds of flower models, and the exhibit boasts approximately 200,00 visitors annually (The Glass Flowers, 2015).
These references to cacao illustrate a broad range and clearly indicate the impact and vast importance that cacao had on outsiders to Meso and South America and helped contribute to the enduring legacy of cacao today.
Becker, K., Geisier, S., Ueberall, F., Fuchs, D., & Gostner, J. (2013) Immunomodulatory
properties of cacao extracts potential consequences for medical applications.
Frontiers in Pharmacology. Vol 4. Retrieved from
Blaschka, R. & Blaschka, L. (n.d.) Theobroma Cacao. (n.d.) Image. Retrieved from
Boery, P. (1888). Les plantes oleagineuses et leurs produits huiles et tourteaux. Image.
Baillière. Paris. Retrieved from
Cacao tree original 1922 botanical print. Chromolithograph illustration. Image. Retrieved
Coe, S. & Coe, M. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.
Third edition. Print
Coles, W. (1657). Adam in Eden or Nature’s Paradise: the history of plants, fruits, herbs a
and flowers. London. Retrieved from
Corning Museum of Glass. (n.d.) Images of Theobroma cacao: color pencil drawings.
De Vos, P. Natural history and the pursuit of empire in eighteenth-century Spain. (2007).
Eighteenth-Century Studies. Volume 40, number 2. pp. 209-239. Retrieved from
The glass flowers. (2016). Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. Harvard
Museum of Natural History. Retrieved from http://hmnh.harvard.edu/glass-flowers
Presilla, M. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao
with recipes. Print
Ruijters, E., Haenen, G., Guido, R., Weseler, A., & Bast,. A. (January 2014). The cacao
flavanol (-)-epicatechin protects the cortisol response.Pharmacological research.
Vol. 79, pp.28-33. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2013.11.004
Sin, H., Satsu, H., Bae, MJ., Zhao, Z., Ogiwara, H., Totsuka, M., & Shimizu, M. (2015).
Anti-inflammatory effects of chlorogenic acid on the IL-8 production in Caco-2
cells and the dextran sulphate sodium-induced colitis symptoms in C57BL/6 mice.
Food Chemistry. Vol 168, pp. 167-175. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.06.100
Theobroma cacao. (n.d.) Image. Retrieved from
Theobroma cacao wild trees old illustration, Brazil. (1867). Image. Created by Riou,
published on Le Tour du Monde, Paris. Retrieved from
Wallace, A. (1889). A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro: With an
Account of the Native Tribes, and observations on the Climate, geology, and
natural history of the Amazon Valley. Published London 1853, second edition
Ward, Lock and Co., Retrieved
Zeng, H., Locatelli, M. Bardelli, C., Amoruso, A., Coisson, J., Travaglia, F., Ariorio, M.,
& Brunelleschi, S. (2011). Anti-inflammatory properties of clovamide and
Theobroma cacao phenolic extracts in human monocytes: evaluation of
respiratory burst, cytokine release, NF-kB activation, and PPARy modulation.
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. DOI: 10.1021/jf2005386