Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) are the source of many beloved products, including chocolate, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, and cocoa solids. The trees thrive in warm, humid climates, as well as in greenhouses, and they can live for several decades. Cacao trees are evergreen, maintaining their foliage year-round. The leaves are a glossy medium green color in an oblong shape that reaches between 4 and 8 inches long. Tiny, fragrant flowers appear throughout the year directly on the tree trunk and branches. Then, the coveted seed pods arise, which are up to 12 inches long and 3 inches in diameter.
The pods typically start out green and ripen over the course of several months to a yellow-orange color. Inside each pod is a white pulp that contains around 20 to 50 seeds, or cocoa beans. The seeds are extracted and processed into myriad products. These trees have a fairly slow growth rate, and it can take around five years before they produce seed pods. The best time to plant is in the spring or fall.
|Botanical Name||Theobroma cacao|
|Common Names||Cacao, cacao tree, cocoa tree, cacao butter tree, chocolate nut tree|
|Mature Size||20–30 ft. tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Loamy, moist, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Hardiness Zones||11–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Central America, South America|
|Toxicity||Toxic to animals|
Cacao trees are not easy to grow, especially if you want to cultivate them outside of their natural environment. Occasionally growers keep them as houseplants. But it is very difficult to provide them with the proper light and humidity levels indoors, and they often won’t ever produce seed pods.
Outdoors, it’s essential to start your tree off right by planting it in a spot that has good drainage and some protection from strong winds and harsh sun. Adding a layer of mulch over its root area can help to maintain adequate soil moisture. Plan to water and fertilize your cacao tree regularly, as this is a plant that likes lots of food and moisture. Cacao trees don’t typically have any serious issues with pests or diseases. However, be on the lookout for insects including aphids, mealybugs, mirids, and borers, which can damage the foliage. And watch out for fungal diseases often due to overly wet conditions, which can discolor the foliage. Treat any issues with a natural insecticide or fungicide as soon as they arise.
Cacao trees can grow in full sun to partial shade, meaning they need at least three hours of direct sunlight on most days. But they will appreciate some shade from the strong afternoon sun, which can scorch their leaves.
These trees thrive in soil that is rich in organic matter. The soil also must have sharp drainage. They can tolerate a slightly acidic to slightly alkaline soil pH.
Cacao trees prefer consistent soil moisture. But be careful not to water so much that the soil remains soggy, as this can rot the tree’s roots. Water whenever the top inch of soil has dried out.
Temperature and Humidity
Temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal for cacao trees. They have good heat tolerance as long as their moisture needs are met and their foliage isn’t being scorched in strong sun. But they don’t do well in cold temperatures or frost. They prefer the temperature to remain above 60, and anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can seriously damage or kill the trees. High humidity is also a must for cacao trees. They won’t thrive in a hot but dry climate.
These trees are heavy feeders, so it’s best to apply an organic balanced fertilizer, following label instructions. It also can be beneficial to mix compost into the soil annually.
Is Cacao Toxic?
All parts of the tree, especially the seeds, contain chemicals that are toxic to animals when ingested. They are the same components, primarily caffeine and theobromine, that make chocolate toxic to animals.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, increased urination, irregular heart rate, seizure, and even death. The severity of the symptoms largely depends on the size of the animal and the amount ingested. If you suspect poisoning, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.
Cacao trees should be pruned once or twice a year to maintain their size and shape. The best time to prune is after a seed pod harvest, though you should remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches whenever you spot them. Selectively prune branches to allow sunlight to hit all parts of the tree and to improve air circulation throughout the tree.
There are three primary cultivar groups within Theobroma cacao that are used to make cocoa products. They are:
- Forastero: This group accounts for the vast majority of cocoa production, as its trees have a high yield and are quite hardy and resistant to disease.
- Criollo: This is the most expensive and rare of the three groups, but it is prized for its delicious flavor that lacks bitter notes.
- Trinitario: This is a hybrid of the other two groups, and it falls somewhere in between them in terms of taste, tree hardiness, and yield.