The cacao, or cocoa bean is the fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is a tropical plant that grows in hot, rainy climates and can only be cultivated within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. The cacao tree needs protection from sun and wind. For this reason, they’re often planted in the shade of taller trees. The cacao pod, or the fruit, is produced once trees are established, and it takes several months for each pod to ripen.
A Delicate Tree
Cacao trees evolved as plants that grow under the canopy of other trees in hot, humid, tropical rain forest areas, which are dominated by cloudy conditions and regular rainfall with short dry periods. Cacao trees thrive in temperatures that range between 65 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and may be damaged or killed during cool weather or in brief freezing temperatures. Temperatures above of 90 degrees Fahrenheit may hinder growth and flowering only occurs in temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Cacao trees also require moist soil year round. Drought stress leads to leaf and flower drop and poor fruit production.
After two to three years of growth, the cacao tree produces numerous clusters of small, waxy pink to white flowers on the older branches and the trunk. This is called cauliflorous flowering, and the trees produce one to five flowers per cluster from tissue along the leafless parts of the stem, which is called the cushion. Trees bloom year-round, and flowers have male and female parts.
Pollination and Fruiting
Cacao tree flowers are pollinated by insects such as midges (Forciponia sp). While many varieties are typically self-compatible, some cacao tree types and varieties are self-incompatible. This means they require cross pollination with a compatible variety. In all varieties, more than half of the flowers will never be pollinated, and these drop within 48 hours of blooming. Only about 5 percent of the pollinated flowers receive enough pollen to begin fruit development. The fruit, known as cacao pods, begins to appear several weeks after pollination. These pods are interesting to observe, because they grow directly from the cacao tree’s trunk and major branches.
The Long Wait for Harvest
The fruit of the cacao tree are pods that contain 30 to 40 seeds surrounded by white, pinkish or brownish pulp. The seeds and pulp are encased in a thick peel, and is typically 4 to 13 inches long. It may be cylindrical to round in shape and green to green-white or maroon in color initially. Color changes as the fruit mature, and the greenish pods typically turn bright yellow, while the maroon pods typically turn orange or yellowish orange upon ripening. Cacao pods grow for 150 to180 days before they’re mature and ready to harvest.