Imagine a world devoid of chocolate. It's hard to fathom. Europeans first discovered the cocoa or cacao tree when they encountered native Central Americans in the 15th century. Today, we add sugar and milk to the powdery cocoa that is made from the pulverized seeds of the fruit pods, yielding decadent and creamy milk chocolate. Cocoa or chocolate trees falter when temperatures dip to near freezing, so enjoy them only in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 11 and warmer.
Cocoa trees are likely native to the deep soils on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains closest to the equator. The widespread use of many parts of this tree by Native Americans centuries ago led to the spread of it to across much of tropical Central and northern South America. "Economic Botany: Plants in Our World" shares that Columbus encountered the products of cocoa trees when he landed in Nicaragua and later noted both the Aztecs and Mayans grew it.
Growing up to 25 feet tall with an umbrella-like canopy, cocoa trees provide shade year-round. In spring and summer, the new oval leaves emerge glossy and light coral-pink. Also this time of year are flushes of tiny white, five-petaled flowers that arise directly from the bark of the trunk and large branches. Pollinated by tiny flies, the fragrant flowers become large swollen fruits that resemble orange to red acorn squashes or miniature American footballs. The ripe fruits, when cut open, reveal a slimy core filled with sweet pulp around many bitter-tasting seeds.
Grow cocoa tree in a landscape never threatened by frosts or droughts. It grows luxuriously in deep, acidic, organic-rich soils that remain moist but drain well after rains. The tree also appreciates high ambient humidity and must be sheltered from winds. It naturally grows as an understory rainforest tree where it receives sheltered, broken light or very bright, indirect light--never harsh direct sunlight.
History of Uses
Both "Economic Botany" and "Tropical and Subtropical Trees" literature tell of Aztecs and Mayan Indians making a paste from the bitter cocoa "beans" or seeds and then hydrating it with hot water and adding chili pepper, vanilla or annatto seeds. Some people added cornmeal to make the beverage more of a slurry. Cortes brought the cocoa bean back to Europe and it was initially loathed because of the bitter taste. By the mid-17th century, Europeans learned to add cinnamon and sugar to the beverage and in 1875 the Swiss company Nestle added condensed milk to the cocoa to create the modern chocolate solids.
The dried, roasted and fermented beans have their seed coats or shells removed. The seed centers are pulverized to create cocoa powder; the shells are pressed to yield cocoa butter or are dried and used as landscape mulch. Melting the fat in unroasted seed centers yields chocolate liquor, a popular drink in Europe in the early 19th century.
Cocoa trees are widely grown in all areas of the tropics worldwide. According to data from 2007 from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Ivory Coast produces the most cocoa beans annually. The remaining members of the top 10 producers, in descending order include: Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Togo, Colombia and Papua New Guinea.