Importance of the Botanical History of Theobroma Cacao

            Chocolate is a daily part of modern life. It is constantly being advertised on television, mixed into various recipes, and consumed by the pounds. However, most people don’t stop to think about where their chocolate bars, cakes and drinks come from. Theobroma cacao is the answer to this unasked question. Theobroma cacao is the tree that grows cacao pods, which are harvested for the beans inside of them to be heavily processed to make the chocolate we know today. Theobroma cacao originated in South America and was discovered by European explorers in the 16th century, although it was used for hundreds of years by the native people of the region before this. It has since spread across the world through human expansion. The botanical history of the cacao tree has focused on how to cultivate it to maximize cacao pod production, which continues to be the emphasis today. Theobroma cacao has spread across the world and has been harvested for numerous uses throughout the centuries since it was discovered, but the botanical care needed to grow the tree has been the key factor to the plants’ success.

            Theobroma cacao’s genetic origin was in the Amazon basin of South America. It grew naturally throughout that area and in some parts of Central America. These locations fall within the geographic range of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, where Theobroma cacao can grow and bear cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 19). This very specific region where Theobroma cacao can grow has created difficulties for people trying to cultivate the tree in other areas of the world. It is a picky tree that needs the correct conditions to grow and produce fruit. After the discovery of the cacao tree in the 16th century, the popularity of chocolate spread throughout Europe. It wasn’t until 1753 that Carl Linnaeus named the tree Theobroma cacao, which means food of the gods in Latin. This meaning originated from the reverence the Maya and Aztec people had towards the cacao tree, often offering cacao drinks to their gods (Leissle, 28). Since Linnaeus’ classification in the 18th century, Theobroma cacao has continued to grow in popularity because of the valuable seeds it produces. As a result, there has been a consistent study of the botanical properties of the tree with the goal of producing the most number of cacao pods possible.

            Numerous works have been written about the botanical care of the cacao tree, which shows how important proper cultivation is for growing success. There are many variations of Theobroma cacao that present options to choose from when growing the tree. The two main types are the Mesoamerican specimen; the criollo and the South American specimen; the forastero. The book Theobroma cacao or Cocoa, Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases by Henry Wright was written in 1907 and discussed the nuances of both criollo and forastero cacao, focusing on their cultivation and growth (Wright). Wright was not the only author to publish books dedicated completely to the botany of Theobroma cacao. John Hinchley Hart published a book in 1892 on the botany and cultivation of cacao, including images of both criollo and forastero cacao pods, which can be seen below (Hart). Even earlier, D. Morris published a book called Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure It in 1882 (Morris). Clearly, the botany of the cacao tree was important enough to merit multiple books, each with hundreds of pages written on how to care for the plant.

Hart’s depictions of criollo and forastero cacao pods in his book ‘Cacao: Treatise on the Cultivation and Curing of Cacao; Botany and Nomenclature of the Same, and Hints on the Selection and Management of Estates’, 1892

            Knowing more about the cultivation of cacao may shed light on why so many works have been written on it. Theobroma cacao is a very tricky plant to grow. It requires to be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and constantly have moisture, some shade, and specific soil components. If these conditions are met, it needs to survive the diseases and pests that can often overtake the tree (Royal Botanical Garden). If the tree grows and sprouts flowers on its trunk (a process called cauliflory), it requires a small fly called a midge to pollinate its flowers. Only 1-3% of flowers that grow on cacao trees are pollinated and grow into the actual cacao pod that is so valued for its beans (Coe and Coe, 21). The pods take around six months to completely ripen. These ripe pods are then harvested to get the coveted beans to make chocolate. The animated video below is one we watched in lecture explaining how complicated the process of growing a cacao tree can be and how other animals are involved. Given all of the intricate steps involved in getting one ripe cacao pod, it is no wonder so much emphasis has been placed on the botanical studies of Theobroma cacao. It is a plant that supplies an enormous industry across the world and takes a great deal of care to grow properly.

Royal Botanical Garden video on the complex process of growing a cacao tree

Theobroma cacao has spread across the world since its European discovery. Today, 74% of cacao is produced in Africa, 17% in the Americas and 9% in Asia Pacific (Leissle). The expansion of the cacao tree to Africa and Asia Pacific was due to human globalization, but even humans could not grow cacao out of its natural geographic location of 20 degrees north and south of the equator, as all of the places it grows today still fit in this band. The image below shows how tightly the cacao growing areas stay around the equator. Plantations have been created to grow cacao trees in large quantities to produce massive amounts of chocolate. A focus on the botany of the tree is imperative to the success of the entire industry. Theobroma cacao is a plant that needs a specific environment to produce cacao pods, which cannot be ignored even with today’s modern science.

Map from the Royal Botanical Garden showing the areas Theobroma cacao is grown along the equator, both as a native and introduced plant. This map is not exhaustive of the locations but gives a general overview.

            The natural history of cacao has seen it spread from the Amazon region of South America to plantations worldwide. Yet we still do not know all there is about the plant. In 2010, Mars, Incorporated funded a genome project for Theobroma cacao to try and learn more about the optimal ways to grow the tree and identify areas to genetically modify it to be more fruitful (Pollack). There are still studies being conducted on the genetic components of the cacao plant today. On the other hand, the botanical studies of Theobroma cacao in the past have created a collective knowledge that allows it to be grown in other parts of the world, and even in someone’s own home. A gardening website boasts ‘Grow Your Own Delicious Chocolate’, and has detailed instructions on how to care for a cacao tree in someone’s own backyard (Logee’s Growers). A video that accompanied the online instructions is included below, showing how much knowledge and care is required to grow a single cacao tree in a greenhouse. It takes meticulous care, but it can be done because of the collective knowledge built throughout the centuries of cacao cultivation.

Logee’s video on how to grow your own chocolate tree

            Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods, still has a deity-like presence over the world today. It is the source of chocolate, a billion-dollar industry and a food loved by all. However, it took hundreds of years of studying the natural history and botany of the cacao tree to be able to grow it successfully in large quantities worldwide. It is a special tree that takes special care, and we have the chocolate production we love today because of the botanical studies performed to know the ins and outs of Theobroma cacao.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

Grow Your Own Delicious Chocolate (Theobroma Cacao). Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.

Hart, John Hinchley. Cacao: Treatise on the Cultivation and Curing of Cacao; Botany and Nomenclature of the Same, and Hints on the Selection and Management of Estates. Government Printing Office, 1892.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Morris, D. Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure It. Government Printing Establishment, 1882.

Pollack, Andrew. “DNA of Cocoa Bean Tree Sequenced by Mars and Hershey.” The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2010.,

“Theobroma Cacao L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science.” Plants of the World Online, Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.

Wright, Henry. Theobroma Cacao or Cocoa, Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases. 1907.

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