Tag Archives: natural history

The Keys to Cacao’s Battle With Disease: Technology & Propaganda

The ordinary consumer does not usually pause to reflect on the origins of the chocolate he/she consumes. Yet, the ingredients of chocolate undergo a lot of processing before they are ultimately turned into a final good. And, before all human-induced processing can ever happen, a growth and reproduction cycle of cacao is absolutely necessary. However, cacao’s future may be under question. Though humans may continue supplying the arduous hand labor required for cacao tree cultivation, cacao diseases prove to be at cross purposes to a threatening level. Plus, with the looming advent of climate change, these diseases may potentially gain more traction, and put at risk global, and not just local, cacao production. Hence, it is an opportune moment for humanity to pool resources into the research and development of barriers to cacao diseases. That is, if it is still in the best interest of society to help cocoa trees survive.

At the heart of this problem is the botanical and natural history of cacao. Theobroma Cacao (theobroma translating to “Food of the Gods”) is the scientific name the naturalist Linnaeus gave to the cacao tree, which bears the fruit essential to the production of chocolate.[efn_note] 1) Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, (Thames & Hudson Inc: 2013), 18. [/efn_note] Cacao’s origin is very likely to have been the northwest Amazon basin.[efn_note] 2) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 37. [/efn_note] Though there is no consensus on the roots of cultivated Theobroma cacao, the oldest known traces of domesticated cacao date back to 1800 BC, and the Olmec civilization is thought to have been the first to either domesticate the plant or discover the process of using cacao beans to make chocolate. [efn_note] 3) Ibid, 35. [/efn_note]

Theobroma cacao species are very similar regarding their fundamental reproductive cycles. Along the trunk of a cacao tree, small flowers bloom. The lucky ones – those which end up pollinated only by midges – end up giving birth to cacao pods: these contain a sweet, white pulp, which engulfs so-called “beans” (actually seeds), and these beans are the parts which ultimately are used to produce chocolate as we know it today. Wild animals actually seek the sweet, white pulp (which humans remove via fermentation in the chocolate production), and inadvertently end up distributing the beans, aiding the natural cycle. But, the “food of the gods” is quite particular about its preferences: A cacao tree loves the shade, will demand year-round moisture, will not tolerate temperatures below 16o C, and will typically not yield its fruit unless it is within the band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator.[efn_note] 4) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 19. [/efn_note] If cacao pods are in the right conditions to grow, they will take between four to five months to reach maximum size, plus one more month to fully ripen.[efn_note] 5) Ibid, 21. [/efn_note]  Cacao’s diffusion across the globe and human selection have together resulted in an understanding of two main subspecies of Theobroma cacao which may interbreed and form fertile hybrids (e.g. the trinitario hybrid): criollo and forastero.[efn_note] 6) Ibid, 26. [/efn_note] While criollo cacao is considered to have a more superior quality, with more flavor and aroma, the forastero cacao is more prolific and accounts for more than 80% of the world’s cacao crop.[efn_note] 7) Ibid. [/efn_note] 

This burdening list of demands does not diminish the historical, standing desire for the food of the gods. Indeed, these demands might as well add to the value of cacao. A cacao bean mostly consists of fat, while less than 10 percent of its weight is protein and starch.[efn_note] 8) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 28. [/efn_note] Regarding chemical composition, cacao contains two alkaloids (methylxanthines), theobromine and caffeine. Caffeine is addictive, as is sugar, a relatively recent addition tied to European chocolate consumption. Cacao is known for containing hundreds of compounds, among which stands out the antioxidant flavonoid compound, quercetin, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity.”[efn_note] 9) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 31. [/efn_note]  Given the chemical complexity of cacao, it is perhaps less surprising that it has been associated with numerous different purposes, such as a unit of currency, medicine, sacred symbol, supposed aphrodisiac, congregational drink, and even source of energy and strength. But, the array of diseases cacao is prone to, including “witches’ brooms,” pod rots, and wilts, puts the entire world supply at risk, especially given the small diversity of species.

The Witches’ Broom Disease is caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa, and prevents cacao trees from reproducing. In Brazil for example, the “Witches’ Brooms ” cocoa disease – spread as part of a malicious political campaign in a late 1980s sabotage against landowners  – resulted in a dramatic downfall of national cocoa production, changing Brazil’s role as an exporter of cacao into an importer. In Ventania, a 900-person village in the northeast of Bahia which once flourished with cacao plantations, tragic consequences were visible, and remain evident to this day. Unemployment rose as cattle jobs were far fewer than cocoa jobs. Crime escalated and adolescents were, and continue to be, drawn to drugs and prostitution. Surely, the world has since seen more security checks in airports to help prevent transport and contamination of agricultural crops. Yet, if any disease like witches’ broom disease somehow were contracted in a major cacao-producing country, such as the Ivory Coast, that would provoke disastrous ripple effects.

Many of the technologies taken for granted today are in some way or another a consequence of the homo sapiens’ control over fire and ignition.[efn_note] 10) Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (New York Harper: 2015) [/efn_note] To draw an analogy, in the same way that fire plays a critical role in the cooking of a raw meat to be eaten, most of the technology in the business of cacao is concentrated on the processing of cacao into a consumable, desirable chocolate. But, fire is also employable in the defense of a tribe’s piece of meat from a hungry lion, and so must be technology in the face of disease. Extrapolating from this analogy, technological advances have helped civilizations make the most of cacao as a resource for consumer’s demands, but now should ideally begin to shift towards the priority of protecting cacao in its raw form. As Kristy Leissle puts it, accounts for “the world is running out of chocolate” are generally published to increase the supply of cacao and drive down prices for the largest chocolate producers.[efn_note] 11)  Leissle, Kristy, (Polity Press: 2018), 178. [/efn_note]  Yet, this is not a debate of merely increasing supply, it is about diversifying to diminish risk, and increasing cacao’s immunity to diseases.

That is where genetic modification comes in with a promising future. In September 2018, “the 35 billion dollar corporation [Mars] pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050.”[efn_note] 12)  Vandette, Kate. 2018. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running out,” Earth.Com (blog). January 3, 2018. [/efn_note] In the face of climate change, Mars and UC Berkeley are using CRISPR technology to begin exploring gene editing. This information is also supported by Erin Brodwin’s account in the World Economic Forum.[efn_note] 13)  Brodwin, Erin. n.d. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” [/efn_note]  Human intervention may prove to be essential to the survival of cacao as well as the efficiency of its production.

Benefits of GMOs are already apparent in the cultivation of “gold rice” and potatoes. But, media is a challenge: the wave of non-GMO pressure must be confronted with rational, data-driven evidence along with more personal stories and appeals pathos with which consumers will more sentimentally connect. For example, one way of framing the argument follows:

Harmful pesticides in potato fields are avoidable when gene edited potatoes are immune to pests. In turn, this prevents workers on the field from getting brain damage from the toxic pesticides they spread.

The example above demonstrates an underlying truth: Propaganda and public interaction have a tremendous power to influence people. Seemingly aware of this notion, and with the purpose of diminishing the negative image of GMOs, “an advocacy group for genetic crop modification is giving away 4,000 pro-GMO chocolates for free in the run-up to Valentine’s Day,” reported Jeremy Hill on February 13, 2019.[efn_note] 14) Hill, Jeremy. 2019. “Genetically-Modified Love? Free Chocolate Pushed as Climate Boon,” February 13, 2019. [/efn_note]  Yet, because there are still uncertain long-term effects of GMO plants, and some GMOs have negatively impacted butterfly populations, cacao producers should invest in the research and development of GMOs, albeit with caution for unexpected effects.[efn_note] 15) Glass, Emily. n.d. “The Environmental Impact of GMOs – One Green PlanetOne Green Planet,” Accessed in 2019. [/efn_note]  Ideally, it would be best if the flora and fauna where GMOs are put in place could be replicated into a sample environment for experimentation. This way, unintended effects may be mitigated, and the public perception of much-needed GMOs may ameliorate. Ultimately, genetic modification may serve humankind as a wall of fire. But, it must simultaneously be supervised, as an unwatched fire may get out of control and cause serious damage.


Brodwin, Erin. n.d. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” World Economic Forum. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/chocolate-is-on-track-to-go-extinct-in-40-years/.

Glass, Emily. n.d. “The Environmental Impact of GMOs – One Green PlanetOne Green Planet.” One Green Planet Organization. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/the-environmental-impact-of-gmos/.

Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, (New York: Harper: 2015).

Hill, Jeremy. 2019. “Genetically-Modified Love? Free Chocolate Pushed as Climate Boon,” February 13, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-13/genetically-modified-love-free-chocolate-aims-to-flip-opinions.

Kristy Leissle, (Polity Press: 2018), 178.

Vandette, Kate. 2018. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running out • Earth.Com.” Earth.Com (blog). January 3, 2018. https://www.earth.com/news/genetically-modified-cacao-chocolate/.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, (Thames & Hudson Inc: 2013), 18.

Influence of the Natural Growth of Cacao on the Development of pre-Columbian Societies

As one partakes in the sugary, delicious flavors of a chocolate bar, occasionally one might wonder about the origin of this sweet treat that has been molded and tailored over the past millennium.  Ironically, this chocolate bar takes its main ingredient from cacao, namely the cacao beans from a cacao tree.  The natural history of the Theobroma cacao tree is a subject that still possesses many different questions, such as the mechanisms of the tree’s pollination or the human influence on its migration from the Amazon Basin to Mesoamerica (Livingston 745).  Despite these questions, the botanical growth of the cacao tree and its migration across Mesoamerica was crucial for the development of Mayan and Aztec civilization.

The origin of Theobroma cacao has been disputed among scholars for decades, with many different ideas of where the birthplace of the cacao tree could have been.  The most popular two choices are between the Amazonia (or Amazon Basin) and northern South America or Central America (Kawa 63).  The cacao tree is a finicky tree; it is produced specifically in a region of the world called the “cocoa belt”, which is defined as the land between 20 degrees North and 20 degrees South of the Equator that hosts the most optimal weather for growing cacao trees (Coe & Coe 19).  The image below shows the main countries where cacao is produced.  Note that these countries all reside along the general region of the cocoa belt, within 20 degrees of the equator.

White highlighted countries mark areas where cacao is mainly grown (Cocoa)

The Theobroma cacao tree naturally exists in the understory of tropical forests, often growing in small clusters (Kawa 63).  Adding on to the finicky nature of Theobroma cacao, the flowers that bloom directly on the surface of the trunk almost exclusively attract a specific type of insect called a midge.  These midges are tiny insects (about 1/10 the size of a fruit fly) that feed on a variety of sources depending on the family name.  In relation to Theobroma cacao, the tiny chocolate midge is virtually the only insect that can pollinate Theobroma cacao naturally (Leissle 26).  Nevertheless, the growth of cacao plantations led to the deforestation of large tracts of natural rainforest land, destroying midge habitats and decaying the amount of cacao crops produced annually (Pollinators).  To prevent this destruction of forest habitats, Pre-Columbians harvested cacao in smaller garden-style portions instead of plantation bases.  Ironically, this smaller scale production most likely led to much higher yields than the industrialized plantation production due to the former’s preservation of midge habitats; the deep tropical forest shade provides the right humidity and temperature for chocolate midges (Coe & Coe 21).

            The botanical nature of the cacao plant was an influential part of the development of Mesoamerican and South American civilizations in the pre-Columbian era.  The Aztec and Mayan societies heavily valued cacao both as a currency and as a religious item.  Again, the origin of cultivation of Theobroma cacao is still unknown, mostly because the South American people in pre-Columbian times were peculiarly interested only in the sweet pulp of the cacao pods, which can be seen in the picture below (Coe & Coe 25). 

Cacao pulp (Raaka)

In modern times, cacao pods are harvested in much the same way as in pre-Columbian times. From the video below, we can see how the cacao is harvested and turned into the chocolate bars that we see on the cashier counters of supermarkets.


Works Cited

“Cocoa Production in a Nutshell.” Make Chocolate Fair!, 7 Oct. 2015, makechocolatefair.org/issues/cocoa-production-nutshell.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

“International Cocoa Organization.” Growing Cocoa, www.icco.org/about-cocoa/growing-cocoa.html.

Kawa, Nicholas C. “The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao by Allen M. Young.” Culture & Agriculture, vol. 30, no. 1‐2, 2008, pp. 63–64.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Livingston, Katherine. “Other Books of Interest — The Chocolate Tree. A Natural History of Cacao (Smithsonian Nature Books) by Allen M. Young.” Science, vol. 268, no. 5211, 1995, p. 744.

“Pollinators.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/chocolate-midge.htm.

“Raaka – Bourbon Cask-Aged 82% and Repurposed Pod Cacao Juice.” Hey Now, Cacao!, 23 Sept. 2018, heynowcacao.com/2018/09/23/raaka-bourbon-cask-aged-82-and-repurposed-pod-cacao-juice/.

Natural History & Chocolate

When the Spanish first encountered chocolate, they were probably a bit mystified. Besides the drink itself, which they thought looked unappetizing and tasted bitter, the cacao tree also looked odd. In contrast with European fruit trees, cacao trees flower and fruit from small cushions on the trunk and larger branches [1]. Thus, the first descriptions of cacao shared in Europe often confused the way cacao flowers and fruits.

This mistake was easily corrected, but understanding the European scientific environment in which cacao was introduced reveals how the mythos surrounding chocolate developed. Cacao’s European introduction occurred at the same time as the emergence and development of natural history; as such, natural history’s focus on humanism and description had a profound effect on cacao’s cultural role. A key example of this is cacao’s incorporation into the humoral theory of medicine. While we now know the truth of cacao growing and no longer believe in the humoral theory of medicine, chocolate’s introduction to the knowledge and academia of sixteenth century Europe had profound effects on its mythos as an exotic, luxurious, and stimulating substance.

Europeans first encountered chocolate in the early 1500s and probably started sending back reports describing the tree not long after. This happened at the same time as the emergence and development of natural history. Throughout the 1500s, natural history transformed from being, at best, a small part of other academic endeavors into a cohesive discipline of a community of scholars producing a particular kind of knowledge [2]. This knowledge, natural history, centered around description. Scholars sought to recognize the vast diversity of the animal and vegetable world, developing methods for precise description [2]. Early natural historians were also humanists and sought stories, mystical or allegorical meanings, and literary references about plants and animals [2]. This explains examples like a description of unicorns in Conrad Gessner’s seminal Historia Animalium and “literary reference” sections that are found in many natural history texts, which can be seen below. This image is an example of the visual description used in natural history and supplements a written description detailing the uses and characteristics of unicorns.

Incorrect botanical drawing of cacao
Unicorn from Gessner’s Historia Animalium

Thus, cacao was introduced when the way nature was being described and understood was in flux. Scholars sought to collect and describe empirical and symbolic information about nature, including the rare, unusual, and strange plants and animals. This information often came from travelers’ tales, which were “eagerly but suspiciously” read for their “emphasis on what was strange, wondrous, or marvelous” [2]. Applying this information to cacao, natural historians likely received written and drawn descriptions of cacao from travelers and, with no prior reference for cauliflory, or flowering and fruiting from the trunk and larger branches, and not fully trusting the native watercolorists, “corrected” perceived mistakes. As such, they told readers that the cacao tree was “about the size of a heart cherry tree or an orange tree” and moved the cacao pods onto smaller branches [1]. An example of this is above, where the cacao pods are clearly drawn like the fruiting trees in Europefr, with the fruit on new growth or shoots. Describing the cacao tree was an exercise in separating the truth from the fantastical; ironically, one of the cacao tree’s key traits was viewed as too strange to be true.

Furthermore, the application of humanism in natural history meant that cacao was introduced not just as a plant but also as a drink consumed by and central to the Mesoamerican people. The relevance of cacao’s economic traits, such as its position as the best and most expensive product of the Americas and its use as currency, as well as its cultural and spiritual importance in various rites and rituals was collected and shared [3]. Chocolate was not just a new beverage to enjoy but as a substance steeped in Mesoamerican history and importance. To partake in chocolate was not just to eat typical food but to have something special. Cacao’s Old World introduction occurred with the development of natural history, ensuring that its importance in Mesoamerican culture continued in the creation and perpetuation of its new myth and mystique.

We have seen that the general interaction of natural history with cacao determined how it was physically and culturally described and incorporated into European knowledge. This process can be seen more specifically in the example of cacao’s incorporation into the European system of medicine. Pre-modern Europe subscribed to the humoral theory of disease and nutrition, where the body was made of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When these humors were balanced in the right proportions, a person was healthy; disease was caused by an imbalance. Humors were affected by a wide variety of factors, including seasons, age, and nutrition. A diagram of the humors, including their relationship with the four elements (water, fire, wood, and earth) and the zodiacal signs is seen below. Thus, all food, including cacao, had to be described as either hot or cold and wet or dry in order to be accepted into the European system of food and medicine. Importantly, Europe’s flawed understanding of the human body and lack of rigorous empirical methods meant that they were desperate for new cures. Pursuing the usefulness of cacao as a medicine was a central aim.

Four humors in relation to four elements and zodiacal signs

Cacao was ultimately classified as “temperate” but leaning to the “cold and humid” by Francisco Hernández, the Royal Physician of Philip II who was sent to catalog the medicinal gardens in the Aztec Empire [1]. The spices that were typically added were generally “hot,” so chocolate was a relatively balanced beverage. However, cacao’s classification is a little puzzling—ingredients that are bitter and strong-flavored are meant to be classified as “hot,” while mild ones are “cold.” Chocolate is definitely not mild. Furthermore, Hernández includes other information such as cacao’s usefulness against poison and intestinal pain and ability to “excite the veneral appetite” [1]. To explain this, Hernández collected information from both direct observation and prior information. While cacao is a stimulant, perhaps the enduring myth of cacao as an aphrodisiac was simply the perpetuation of “aphrodisiac” through time by way of natural history. And, despite the strong flavors of cacao, its humoral classification was probably the adoption of an Aztec understanding of cacao as “cold.”

Cacao’s introduction in a learning culture that was fundamentally about collecting and describing meant that natural historians, while determining the physical characteristics of cacao, also developed the mythos and cultural references surrounding chocolate. Cacao was always going to be a singularly odd plant for Europeans, but it was the natural historian’s concurrent interest in humanism that contributed to chocolate as the luxurious, comforting, and decadent treat that it is today.

Works Cited

  1. Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).
  2. Brian W. Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  3. Carla D. Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 2016.

Figure Citations

  1. Rocky, Aldrin. Cacao. June 28, 2014.
  2. Gessner, Conrad. Thierbuch das is ein kurtze b[e]schreybung aller vierfüssigen thiern so...Christoffel Forschower, 1563.
  3. Hernández, Francisco. “Cacao tree.” fromRerum medicarum Novae Hispanie thesaurus, Madrid, 1649.
  4. Thurneisser, Leonhart. “Alchemic approach to four humors in relation to the four elements and zodiacal signs.” from Quinta Essentia, 1574.

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). https://www.logees.com/growcacao. 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. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/business/15chocolate.html.

“Theobroma Cacao L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science.” Plants of the World Online, http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:320783-2. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.

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

Contradictions in Cacao: How a plant belies its complex origins

To gaze upon a cacao plantation is to overload the senses: a dense canopy of green filters light into dappled shadows, a thick layer of leaf litter covers the ground, and brightly-hued pods hang from small cushions on the trunks and larger branches of the cacao trees (see Figure 1). Yet, this visually rich and colorful image of the cacao plantation belies the power dynamics that went into shaping it (Mitchell 43). From speculation around cultivated cacao’s origins and the meaning behind its given scientific name, to the plant’s perplexing genome and reliance on intensive labor, cacao has been at the center of tumultuous social and political forces. Cacao, from its plant form to final chocolate product, disguises a complex history that impacts how contemporary consumers view and value it today.

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 1: A cacao plantation evokes a vibrant, colorful scene, yet its picturesque appearance  masks the complex social and political forces that led to its formation.

To discuss the origins of cacao is to reconcile a story of multiple beginnings. On one hand, there is the genetic source of the tree; on the other hand, there is the start of its cultivation and role in the chocolate-making process (Coe 25). As a biological entity, the cacao tree originated between the northwest Amazon basin and eastern slopes of the South American Andes. The initial cultural significance of the cacao tree was for its fruit pulp, rather than its seeds. In fact, the cacao tree’s bounty was not used to make chocolate during pre-Columbian times in South America (Coe 25, 37). The consensus is that, by 1800 BCE, it was Mesoamerican innovation that led to the development of the intricate process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate. Yet, there is contention regarding exactly how a wild tree from the Amazon appeared in Central America and Mexico to become a cultural and economic juggernaut. One explanation is that the ecological range of wild cacao was as far-reaching from the Amazon to southern Mesoamerica. Another possibility is that the tree was domesticated in South America for its fruit and transported to Mesoamerica via coastal trading routes (Coe 25, 37). The precise chronology of how the cacao tree became domesticated for chocolate production remains ambiguous.

The enigmatic qualities of the cacao tree are further confounded when considering its scientific name. When European colonizers arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, one of their objectives was to name—or, more aptly, “re-name” what native people had bestowed—plants according to the prevailing classification systems of the time. Carl von Linné, an 18th century Swedish scientist, gave the cacao tree a name that happened to capture the tension between the two worlds (Coe 18). The use of a Greek term for the genus, Theobroma, evokes a sense of heritage—which is fitting for the cacao tree’s long history—but is misleading about the cacao tree’s South American origins. Moreover, Theobroma translates to “food of the gods,” demonstrating how the European invaders recognized how treasured cacao was in Mesoamerican society. Yet, the decision to relegate the more accurate designation cacao to the specific name captures how colonizers viewed the New World as second-rate, lagging behind Europe. When put together, the designation Theobroma cacao simultaneously identifies and obscures the origins of the cacao tree. Just as its paradoxical scientific name persists nearly three hundred years later, the ability of the cacao tree to not conform to imposed classifications continues to this day. While cacao does not have a large genome as compared to other food plants, it resists standard categorizations based on form, color, and flavor when examining the transfer of genes from one generation to the next (Presilla 61). Modern research is still working to uncover the direct links between the genetics of cacao and how they are expressed in the physical morphology of the plant (Martin, Feb. 2018; see Figure 2).

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 2: The genes that influence the shape, color, and flavor of cacao pods between generations are the subject of contemporary research on cacao.

The botanical structure of cacao also subverts the notion that, because it is a cultivated food plant, it must be easy to propagate en masse. The cacao tree is, in fact, difficult to grow, with a very specific set of ecological requirements. Only in areas within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, at altitudes where temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and under conditions of year-round moisture, does the cacao tree thrive (Coe 19). Cacao also exemplifies “biological inefficiency taken to the extreme” as only one to three percent of flowers bear fruit (Coe 21). Furthermore, the plant does not employ any dispersal mechanism for its seeds: animals intervene in the wild while humans perpetuate cultivated cacao by opening the pods and distributing the seeds (see Figure 3). The cacao tree’s need for intense and direct intervention has engendered a body of knowledge of expertise and skills, a material culture, a set of rituals, and a network of economies, that further elevate cacao’s cultural importance. Yet, this need for intense labor and involvement is not necessarily conveyed when viewing a cacao plantation (Mitchell 43). The opposite experience is even evoked with imagery of lush green canopy and rustic exoticism. While appearing idyllic, the form of a cacao plantation does not expose the exploitation of child labor or that only three percent of the final chocolate product’s economic value is allocated to the cacao farmers (Martin, Jan. 2018). How the contemporary consumer views production and how the producer experiences production are two opposing tensions that are tied to the cacao tree once again.

Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March
Figure 3: Direct human intervention is necessary for cultivating cacao and has led to the creation of an interconnected web of technical knowledge, cultural celebration, and economic exchange.

In short, the ambiguity of the origins of cultivated Theobroma cacao and the difficulty of classifying it, whether genetically or taxonomically, is significant for how cacao is framed and valued. Naming an object and establishing its genesis imbues it with importance and provides clues for how to derive meaning from its role in society. When cacao’s origins are unclear, end consumers may not be able to place it within a structure of similar meanings and, as a result, may lack a moral responsibility towards cacao’s source and production. The situation is exacerbated further when the seemingly picturesque appearance of a cacao plantation masks the inequality and struggles that go into shaping its formation. When viewing the landscape of modern cacao production, the question becomes: can consumers be made aware of cacao’s complex history in such a way that will empower them to action for social justice?


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” 24 Jan. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” 14 Feb. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Mitchell, Don. “New axioms for reading the landscape: paying attention to political economy and social justice.” Political economies of landscape change. Springer, Dordrecht, 2008. 29-50.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

Multimedia Sources

All Pods Unite.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kohut, Meridith. “Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March.” The New York Times. “In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness,” by Simon Romero. 28 July 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/world/americas/29cacao.html


How a Tree of the Past Can Help us Make the Chocolate of the Future

               It seems that every article about chocolate begins with a reference to its ubiquity and intoxicating nature. Perhaps there is no other way to remind the reader what is at stake with a food so bound in nostalgia and lust. In keeping with the tradition, I have selected a quote by Simian Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. She describes chocolate as “the stuff of life and love — celebrated, debated and imbued with far more than calories”. But as the title of her book suggests, cacao, the raw material to make chocolate, is among a growing list of foods threatened by our changing biological, chemical, and physical planet. Warmer temperatures lead to evaporation rates too high for the sensitive plant and increase the prevalence of fungal and insect pests. Soils in cacao growing regions are nutrient-depleted, and extreme weather events jeopardize water stability. Scientists across the globe are working to address these concerns by developing delicious, highly productive, resource-efficient, and disease-resistant varieties. Knowledge of the botanical and natural history of the cacao plant is critical for this research because understanding how the plant has historically evolved can help us design a plant for the future.

               All chocolate starts as a seed inside the fruit of a Theobroma cacao tree. Recent DNA analysis suggests this specie originated – with slightly different genetic makeups – in both the Peruvian Amazon River Basin and the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes. Humans initially cultivated the crop for the sweet pulp that coats the seeds, and ancient Mesoamerican civilizations were the first to prepare and consume the seeds themselves. The human expansion of the plant ever since has largely influenced its current genetic diversity.

               Starting during the end of the 1600s, the Spanish brought cacao eastward to present day Philippines, Java, and Indonesia, and the Portuguese later brought cacao to West Africa (which would later become the world’s largest supplier of cacao). The above map outlines the botanic origin of Theobroma cacao in striped red as well as major transoceanic movements of the plant. Due to temperature and humidity constraints, Theobroma cacao must be cultivated within 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. This range is indicated on the map above with the dotted horizontal lines for the Topic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Due to the unfortunate inverse correlation between proximity to equator and wealth, the regions suitable to growing cacao are also some of the poorest.


               Starting during the end of the 1600s, the Spanish brought cacao eastward to present day Philippines, Java, and Indonesia, and the Portuguese later brought cacao to West Africa (which would later become the world’s largest supplier of cacao). The above map outlines the botanic origin of Theobroma cacao in striped red as well as major transoceanic movements of the plant. Due to temperature and humidity constraints, Theobroma cacao must be cultivated within 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. This range is indicated on the map above with the dotted horizontal lines for the Topic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Due to the unfortunate inverse correlation between proximity to equator and wealth, the regions suitable to growing cacao are also some of the poorest. {Photo sourced here}

               The cacao variety originally cultivated in Mesoamerica, later titled Criollo, enjoyed a subtle and complex flavor profile and was the first variety to supply the exploding global demand. But at some point in the 18th century (the exact date is unknown), a new source of genes was introduced into the world’s commercial cacao stocks when Iberians discovered cacao growing wild in the South American mainland. The natives knew it as a fruit, but it had never been made into chocolate. This variety, called Forastero, has a harsh, bitter and sour flavor with no secondary notes, but boasts higher yields and greater disease resistance. After a series of disease epidemics over cacao groves in Trinidad, farmers reestablished the crop with the Forastero variety. These plants were then crossed with some of the remaining Criollos and a hybrid, called Trinitario, was born. However, it is important to consider that even before human intervention, Criollos crossed and backcrossed with Forasteros hundreds or thousands of times to form subvariants. DNA analysis is the only way to unscramble these gene mixes and recent analysis actually challenges the traditional belief that Criollos, Forastero, and Trinitario are the only genetic grouping. Forasteros are now classified into 9 unique groups, and as cacao DNA research continues, classification will be further fine-tuned (however, rapid deforestation in cacao habits risks eradication of varieties before we have the chance to discover them).   

               Each Theobroma cacao variety has its own unique characteristics from the size, color, and smoothness of the pod to the shape, flavor, and fattiness of the seed. Understanding the botanical development and characteristics of each variety allows scientists to select for specific traits and assemble a crop suitable for our changing environmental conditions. DNA analysis also allows scientists to test progeny for certain alleles rather than waiting 10 year for them to mature.

Over the last centuworld-crop-populationry, cacao under cultivation has become more uniform and has lost its adaptation to niche environments and specific areas. The genetic base is steadily narrowing, and Criollo, and its superior flavor profile, holds a dwindling share of the world’s cacao supply. The visualization to the left is the current global distribution (across the three antiquated variety categories) of cultivated cacao. {Graphic sourced from Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker}  

               In addition to understanding genetic varieties, research on cacao’s botanical history helps us understand its current ecological systems. For example, large modern cacao plantations suffer from pollination rates which are substantially lower than those of wild trees. This in turn leads to lower pod yields. When researchers looked at this phenomenon in the context of the Theobroma cacao tree’s natural history, the problem became clear. The tree is exclusively pollinated by midges, a fly that likes to lay its eggs on wet decomposing matter not present in neatly manicured plantations. Considering the natural ecosystem surrounding cacao could also help identify biocontrol species and other plants adapted to shade the sun-sensitive cacao tree. Cacao’s botanical history is especially useful compared to other crops that must reseed every year. Because of cacao’s longer generations, modern cacao is quite similar compared to wild cacao.

               I am not the first to claim that the Theobroma cacao specie is at risk and requires new cultivation varieties and techniques. Due to chocolate’s almost universal adoration, any news article on the topic goes viral. One especially well written article by Bloomberg Markets titled “To Save Chocolate, Scientists Develop New Breeds of Cacao” goes into more detail than this short blog post about new varieties scientists have developed (the article can be found here). But the botanical history of how the Amazonian plant became a $100 billion per year global industry often goes untold in these narratives about the future. It was the years of selective breeding and understanding of the plant’s biological nuances that gave rise to today’s industry. And as we face climate change and its multitude of siblings, an understanding of the past is critical to constructing the future.


“Cacao Bean Varieties.” Scharffen Berger. http://www.scharffenberger.com/our-story/about-cacao/bean-varieties/.

“Chocolate from the New World.” Indigenous and Non Indigenous Plants and Animals (web log).

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Motamayor, et al. “Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas.” Heredity 89, no. 5 (May 14, 2002): 380-86. doi:10.1038/sj.hdy.6800156.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Schatzker, Mark. “To Save Chocolate, Scientists Develop New Breeds of Cacao.” Bloomberg.com. November 14, 2014. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-14/to-save-chocolate-scientists-develop-new-breeds-of-cacao.

Scott, Michon. “Climate & Chocolate .” Climate.gov. February 10, 2016. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-and/climate-chocolate.

Sethi, Simran. Bread, wine, chocolate: the slow loss of foods we love. New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016.

Cacao’s Natural and Cultural History: Inseperable

In the harsh, fluorescent light of CVS where the bar code scanner bleeps intermittently, the Hershey’s chocolate bars below the counter sit in a spot between other candies wrapped in loud, metallic casings. Chocolate’s origins, however, are botanical and tropical, and a complete contrast to the supermarket aisles and humming vending machines we find it in day to day. Chocolate’s natural historical background, while not considered often by consumers of Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars chocolates, were essential to its earliest cultivators, to its worldwide distribution and exponential growth in popularity, and its importance as a cultural and culinary staple.

While the uses of the cacao tree’s products are diverse and extremely historic, all of these can be attributed to the botanical properties and biological traits that make Theobroma cacao so unique. Chocolate’s botanical genesis is set within 20 degrees north and south of the equator in the warm equatorial regions of Central and South America and Africa. It is here that Mesoamerica’s ancient civilizations began to use cacao as foodstuff, which took off in tandem with a start to understanding cacao as a plant and natural resource.

 While chocolate does not grow on trees, its essential ingredient, cacao beans, are contained by colorful pods that grow from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The cacao beans which are ground into chocolate liquor and used in diverse ways are contained in colorful fruits that grow from the trunk of the tree, a trait known as cauliflory. The pods contain a cream colored pulp that surrounds the beans, and is likely what the earliest users of the cacao tree were drawn to, eating the sweet inside flesh as a fruit. Even entomological and botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian has artwork depicting the cacao plant. The detailed work emphasizing the details of the plant shows an in-depth understanding of its anatomy at the turn of the 18th century. The consumption of the bitter cacao pod’s pulp and accounts by Europeans describing cacao’s physical features show an awareness of the structural traits of cacao pods, beans, and trees that evolved alongside cacao’s increased and diversified use as food, money, and a health product.  


Maria Sybilla Merian’s 1705 botanical illustration of the cacao plant. 

Our scientific understanding of cacao, beginning long before the advent of molecular biology is well-documented. For centuries, botanists and biologists have taken interest in plants that have profound importance. Cacao, in its transformation from luxury food item to culinary staple, has been long studied and understood. Carolus Linnaeus, for example, the Swedish botanist and father of Linnaean taxonomy, designated cacao’s scientific name in the 18th century. It is Latin for “food of the gods, cacao.” Linnaeus classified organisms based on their similar morphologies, and his naming the cacao species demonstrates the observation and consideration of the plant’s reproduction and other biological features. Even today, scientists study cacao in greenhouse and natural settings to understand how pests and other threats can be combatted. Over time, the cacao has been extremely influential and a major resource, and has driven botanists and farmers to work to understand its biology by outward appearance, chemical composition, and, in the case of modern biologists, genetic makeup.

Spanish colonists in Mesoamerica’s Aztec empire used different words to describe the tastes of the cacao varieties: cacao dulce for sweet cacao and cacao blanco for white cacao. They experimented with the different varieties and flavors and learned the distinctions between the different cacaos that generated different flavors. Today, we known from a genomic level that there are several varieties of cacao which, according to DNA-sequencing molecular biology technology, are genetically distinct. Scientists can use this genetic data in a number of applications related to cacao, but one job of this research is to understand the different varieties and relatedness of cacao, and to comprehend its evolution. Over time, in addition to studying the outward appearance of the beans and plant, people’s comprehension of cacao has been influenced by a sense of taste. Whether colonists describing its taste knew it or not, they, like cacao geneticists, studied diversity in cacao and had some botanical sense of which cacao caused which flavors.


This video, from an Australian publication, gives a whimsical, but informative explanation to cacao genomic studies. 

As biological advancements have exploded in this century and last, our understanding of cacao will only increase. Scientific curiosity regarding the tree and the properties of its fruits and beans reflect the same value that the cultural history between cacao and people represents. While its use in drinks and as money has morphed and expanded, its cultural importance remains. In the face of harmful insects, rapid population growth, and inequities in the chocolate production industry, our research and botanical understanding of cacao will be motivated for the future, as long as its significance to chocolate consumers worldwide persists.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Linnaeus, Carolus. Systema Naturae, 1st edition (1735). Translated in Dutch Classics on the   History of Science (Netherlands, 1964), pp. 17-30.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016. Slide 68. Retrieved from:

Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 1-59. Print.

Stearn, William T. “Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) as a Botanical Artist.International Association for Plant Taxonomy. August 1982: Volume 31: pp. 529-531.

Media Sources 

Horstman, Mark. “GM Chocolate Trees.” http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3198405.htm. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 April 2011. Web. 18 February 2016.

Merian, Maria Sibylla. Veranderingen der Surinaamsche Insecten. 1705. Engraved by Pieter Sluyter. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacau_boom_Maria_Sibylla_Merian_1705_plate_XXVI.png