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Cacao pods growing on a tree

The Latin name for this plant means 'food of the gods' and for good reason – it's the source of chocolate! You can find cacao pods of many shapes, sizes and colours growing in the Crops section of our Rainforest Biome.

Botanical description

  • Scientific name: Theobroma cacao
  • Family: Malvaceae (kapok, mallow, cola, hibiscus)

Understorey evergreen tree up to 8m tall. Leaves up to 20cm long, oblong-obovate with drip tip (acuminate). Leaf edge (margin) entire, without teeth or lobes. Flowers borne in clusters on branches and trunk (cauliferous), pinkish-white in colour. Petals slender and pointed, curving back over flower structure. Fruits up to 30cm long, yellow, brown and even purple in colour, usually with 10 ribs. Seeds embedded in slimy (mucilaginous) pulp. Pollinated by Forcipomyia biting midges.

Facts

Did you know?

Scientists are crossing West African cocoa trees with their wild South American ancestors to create disease-resistant trees, which will lead to fewer chemicals being used and less planting on new land.
  • Once the flowers have been pollinated they produce large pods containing cacao (or ‘cocoa’) beans. When crushed the beans yield cocoa mass, the basis of chocolate.
  • Cocoa trees originate from South America's rainforests but today most of our cocoa is grown by about 2.5 million farmers, mainly on smallholdings in West Africa.
  • The UK chocolate industry supports schemes such as Fairtrade, improving livelihoods and protecting locals from global price fluctuations. Fairtrade also gives a premium that can be reinvested in business, social and environmental schemes.
Cacao pod growing on a tree

Where it grows

Native to lowland tropical America but now widely cultivated in West Africa. Requires a shady location, humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil.

Hands holding a cacao pod cut in half showing the fruit inside
Chocolate

Common uses

Today chocolate is the 'sweet snack of the people' but many years ago, as a part of their rituals, Mayan and Aztec nobles drank their cocoa beans ground and brewed with chillies. This is where the Latin name Theobroma cacao, meaning 'food of the gods', comes from. When it first arrived in Spain in the 16th century some didn’t like it, one even proclaiming it ‘fit for pigs’. Sugar was added and it grew in popularity especially with the ladies of the Spanish court. Chocolate became a European luxury, with chocolate houses frequented by the elite springing up in the capital cities. Debates centred around its medical value, and whether it was it an aphrodisiac. Chocolate went on to be used as emergency rations for armies, navies and rescue teams, and eventually became a ‘luxury’ that everyone could enjoy.

How chocolate is made

Useful links

Glossary

  • Lobe: incomplete division in any plant organ (eg leaf).
  • Obovate: two-dimensionally egg-shaped with widest part at the apex.
  • Understorey: growing underneath the canopy layer.

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