When we eat chocolate, whether as a bar or in a drink or in any kind of form, we are eating the by-product of the humble cocoa tree. Cocoa is a crop going back to ancient times, but it wasn't introduced to Europe until the 16th century, according to the University of Florida. This amazing plant has taken hold.
Cocoa is native to the Andes in South America, says UCLA, and was used widely by the Aztecs and Mayans. Aztecs thought the plant was a gift from their god of the air and treated it as a holy substance. Columbus encountered cocoa on his fourth voyage to the Americas when intercepting in a canoe, but it was the Spanish explorer Cortez who brought the plant to Europe.
The leaves of the cocoa tree are found toward the edge of the branch. They are long, with swells at the end which, according to the University of Florida, are called pulvinus. The leaves are bright green and grow to a size of 24 inches.
Before the cocoa tree comes to fruit, it produces flowers. Flowers appear on the older branches of the tree and also on the trunk itself. The flowers that appear along the trunk grow on cushions and are called cauliflory. Flowers often arise several times from the cushions. The flowers reproduce asexually, having both male and female parts.
The pod of the cocoa tree is fully developed within five to seven months after a flower is pollinated. The pod has a thick peel that protects the seeds inside. Pods are between 4 to 13 inches in length and may contain anywhere from 20 to 60 seeds each. The seeds are dried and processed into chocolate.
The cocoa tree is accustomed to a shady environment that is hot and humid, which is the climate of a tropical rain forest. The cocoa tree prefers a temperature between 60 and 90 degrees F; temperatures 50 degrees F and below cause damage to the tree. Flowering of the cocoa tree occurs only when the temperature is 68 degrees F and above.