Cocoa beans grow on a tree called Theobroma cacao and are the base ingredient for making chocolate. The relatively small tree is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America and it thrives in moist, shady areas of the rain forest. If you live below 1,000 feet in elevation in a tropical region (USDA climate zone 10 or 11), you can grow your own chocolate. This tree requires temperatures that never drop below the upper 50's Fahrenheit, and thrives best when it receives up to 100 inches of rain a year.
Test your soil in the shady area where you plan to plant your cacao tree and adjust the pH if it is not acidic. To make your soil more acidic, add sulfur to lower the pH to around 5.0.
Dig any type of compost into your planting area and then plant your young cacao tree under a coconut palm, a stand of bananas or other tree(s) that will provide shade. If you live in a windy area, provide some protection from wind, either by planting your cacao tree behind larger trees that will protect it or by building a windbreak.
Fertilize your tree when you plant it by spreading a granular fertilizer with an N-P-K ratio of 12-12-17 or 15-15-6 on the soil in a radius about 1 foot from the trunk. Use the same fertilizer the second year, but apply it about 2 feet from the trunk. As the tree grows larger, apply fertilizer about 3 feet from the trunk once a year. Mature trees might occasionally need boron and zinc as well.
Watch for fungal diseases, such as frosty pod rot; insects such as the cocoa pod borer; and some rodents that can attack cacao trees. Harvest pods regularly and completely to help control the borer insect. Chemical control with a broad-spectrum insecticide has been reported to be effective. Treat fungal diseases with an approved fungicide.
Harvest the large pods when they become red or purple to ensure ripeness of the beans inside.
Prune your cacao tree to keep it a manageable size, which will make harvesting the cocoa beans easier. The tree can reach 45 feet tall in the wild.
Things You Will Need
- Young cacao tree
- Deep, acidic soil
- Shady, protected area
- Starting cacao trees from seed is best left to professional growers. Trees are becoming more available in places such as Hawaii, as a new industry is being built around them.
- Don’t worry if your cacao tree loses its leaves and sends out new leaves up to four times a year--this is normal behavior for this tree.
- Your cacao tree should begin bearing cocoa beans during its fifth year in the ground if all of its environmental conditions are suitable.
- The cacao tree produces fruit and flowers year-round on its branches, making it unusual in the plant world for having flowers and fruit on the tree at the same time. However, only a small percentage of flowers become pollinated and turn into the pods that contain the cocoa beans.
- You can leave ripe seedpods on the tree for two to three weeks without fear of them rotting or the beans inside sprouting.
- Cocoa beans must be processed into chocolate to become edible, although small mammals eat the pulpy beans inside the pods.
- The first Hawaii Cacao Festival took place on January 31, 2010 in Haleiwa, Oahu to celebrate this emerging agricultural industry.