Have you ever enjoyed a piece of chocolate? Well then, that brings you close to the wonderful cacao tree. Chocolate starts from the bitter seed of the cacao tree. Cacao is typically grown in mountainous regions such as Northern Thailand or the Amazon. Cacao, or Theobroma Cacao, translates to “food of the gods” in Greek.
This sacred plant originated in the upper amazon region in places like Peru and Ecuador. The beans were used as a trading piece and as a royal drink in the Aztec and Mayan Empires. It was documented as being used from 400 B.C.
They did not add sugar to the Cacao drink, so it was very bitter. In fact, it wasn’t until 1500 that people started to mix cacao with sugar to give it the famous chocolate taste that we know today.
Cacao is best grown as a secondary plant, under the shade of other trees. This makes it a good plant to add into your food forest layer. Keep in mind, they require a tropical climate to grow.
So if you want to grow them in the USA outside of zones 11-13, you will need a greenhouse. Cacao likes to be protected from strong sun and winds. These trees can live to be up to 100 years!
The fruit of this tree is a 6-12 inch long pod that grows off of the woody stem. These pods are opened and processed into the bean which is used to make chocolate.
Unfortunately, the chocolate industry has exploited cacao farmers all around the world. The pressure on farmers forces them to use a lot of chemicals in order to produce high yields. This is destroying biodiverse ecosystems all within the 10 degrees north and south of the equator.
This is another reason why it is important for us to grow cacao in a food forest system that regenerates soil, rather than hurts it.
Cacao is considered a “heart opener” and often consumed in ceremonial formats based on spirituality. In Chiang Mai, we have many Cacao Ceremonies which are popular amongst foreigners.
It is very high in flavonoids and can be used to reduce blood pressure, mitigate heart attacks, and increase blood flow to the brain. You can consume the outside of the bean raw, but it is typically fermented and processed to make sweet chocolate.
There is probably nothing more exciting than being able to make your own chocolate. So why not give it a try in your food forest?
Propagation and Planting
In order to start a cacao tree in your garden, you have three options. You can either take a cutting from a tree, buy a small plant, or start it from seed. Of course, starting it from seed will take much longer than the first two options.
If you are interested in starting it from the bean, you need to make sure the bean is fresh from the pod. Starting a very dry bean lowers your chances of it sprouting.
Remove the outer shell, and plant about 1in (3cm) into the soil. Keep it well-watered until the sprout emerges. If the soil gets too dry, the bean may not sprout. Cacao beans can take up to one month to sprout, so be patient! Once the sprouts form, it can take up to 4 years until it bears fruit.
If you want to take a cutting, find a healthy branch connected to the main stem. Use sterilized scissors to take the cutting so you do not damage the main branch. If you have a rooting hormone, dip the base of the cutting in there.
After that, place it into a pot with well-draining soil. Once your cutting, seedling, or sprout grows up to 2 feet tall (0.5-0.7m), you should transplant it into its final location.
When it is ready to transplant, dig a hole double the size of the root ball. Make sure it is planted firmly and upright in the ground. Remember, find a place that will get filtered sunlight.
The cacao tree can grow to be between 20-40 feet (6-12m) tall. Keep this in mind when planning for the final location of your plant.
Growth and Care
As long as you provide the right conditions of filtered sunlight and temperatures of between 60-85f, Cacao is not that difficult to grow.
It can be susceptible to a few problems though. One of those issues is root rot.
The best way to avoid root rot is to not overwater. Cacao trees need 1-2 inches of water per week.
Let the soil fully dry between watering. You never want the water to pool up on top of the roots.
The cacao tree will continue growing all year round, but the flowers and pods will come twice a year.
Typically the blooms come during the dry season. Expect to see pods between May- July and then again sometime between October-March.
If you have a biodiverse food forest with fertile soil, you shouldn’t need to add much extra fertilizer.
However, in most situations, you will need to add some balanced compost every 3 months. This is due to the high soil fertility loss caused by high chemical use.
Add a shovelful of compost to the base of the tree at the time of planting, and then do the same thing every three months.
The most common pests that attack cacao trees are mealybugs and aphids. Mealybugs will form a white powder underneath the leaves.
When you see this, spray your plant with neem oil until the problem subsides. Make sure to spray underneath the leaves.
If you notice that the cacao leaf tips are browning, this is likely due to a potassium deficiency. Some natural sources of potassium are wood ash and kelp meal. Put 2-3 scoops at the base of the roots and observe to see if conditions improve. Prune off any weak or diseased branches as you see them.
The best way to tell when to harvest the cacao pod is by looking at the color. The ideal time to harvest is when the pod is at its most mature point. The sugar content and butter content of the seed is affected by the time it was harvested.
You want the pod to have a strong orange and brown color at the time of harvest.
In order to harvest, you need to use a knife to cut the pod off of the branch. The pod can be split horizontally in two, revealing the seeds inside.
You will see that the beans are covered in a white film. This film is edible and very refreshing to eat!
One pod can contain between 30-50 beans! To get an idea of how many beans you need, 400 beans are used to make one pound of chocolate!
Processing and Utilizing
Once the cacao pods are harvested, you can move forward to the exciting step of making chocolate! Before making chocolate though, you can enjoy the flesh that surrounds the cacao beans.
To eat that, you need to suck around the bean to kind of clean it off with your mouth. I highly recommend trying this. The flavor is very unique and delicious! It even produces a euphoric after-effect.
The inside of the bean has a purple color. When you roast them, they begin to turn more brown. In order to make chocolate, you need to follow a few key steps.
The first step is to place them in a container and let them ferment for 1-2 days. The fermentation will eat away at the extra skin surrounding the bean. It should have an alcoholic smell after those days of fermentation.
After fermentation, you may begin roasting the beans. You can roast the bean over a fire, with a roaster machine like for coffee, or in the oven.
If you want to do it in the oven, spread the beans flat on the pan and cook for 300f for about 1.5 hours. Wait until you see that the beans are completely brown. The bean should feel dry and brittle.
At this stage, crush the dried beans into very small pieces. This is what people refer to as Cacao nibs. These are a healthy addition to smoothies or granola.
Once you have the nibs, use a strong blender to grind the beans down until it is a fine paste. Mix the nibs with sugar and milk if you prefer. You can also use vegan milk, but this may affect the texture.
When it is in paste form, you can pour it into a mold to let it harden overnight. Once it is solid, remove it from the mold and you can eat it!
Another option is to use powdered nibs to make a delicious hot cacao drink. You can melt it down with milk on a stovetop. Enjoy the silky rich taste on a cool mountain evening.
From start to finish, growing cacao is a powerful experience and one I highly recommend!