YOUR WEEKLY DOSE OF WOWZERS AND WONDER FROM THE NATURAL WORLD
There’s a good chance you have experienced this week’s featured topic. But, you probably know it by other names.
This week, we’re looking at the cacao tree! A plant that creates the seeds used to make a favourite treat for kids around the world — chocolate!
Buckle up and get ready to explore this Wowzerful member of the plant world!
Once only native to the lowland rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins in South America, demand for cocoa beans has spread cacao trees throughout tropical climates around the globe.
Today, you can find cacao trees in the New World tropics, West Africa, and tropical Asia. But West Africa serves as the main source of cacao trees and cocoa beans for the entire world.
Growing to an average height of between 6 and 8 meters (roughly 20 to 26 feet,) cacao trees prefer warm environments, with average temperatures between 20º Celcius (68º Fahrenheit) and 28º Celcius (82º Fahrenheit) with plenty of moisture.
Despite the tree’s height, it has very shallow roots.
Strong winds can easily blow them over and too much rain can lead to root rot. They’re also at risk for fungal and viral infections that can quickly take over and destroy their pods.
Add in the fact that bugs such as mealybugs, cocoa pod borers, and thrips love cocoa beans just as much as we do, and you have a tree that can be very high maintenance!
While cacao trees still grow in the wild, most of them reside on small farms which are meticulously monitored. This helps to to keep the trees healthy, happy, and producing plenty of cocoa beans.
Cocoa beans are part of the large seed pods—also known as cherelles—that grow on the upper branches of the cacao tree.
The average tree takes 4 to 5 years to bear fruit, though farmers have helped to create hybrid cacao tree types that can bloom in as little as 3 years to help keep up with the world’s insatiable hunger for chocolate.
Each tree will produce thousands of flowers. Once a flower is pollinated, it turns into a seed pod. On average, each tree produces about 70 pods a year.
Unlike the brown cocoa beans you’ve probably seen before, the pods themselves are colourful, with an outer skin that can range from vibrant yellow, orange, red, or even purple.
Once ripe, a cherelle can reach 35cm (14 inches) in length and can contain 20 to 60 sticky, white cocoa beans.
It can take up to 600 beans to make 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocoa paste. This means that the average tree might only make enough beans for 7 kilograms (14.4 pounds) of cocoa paste every year!
While you likely won’t stumble across a cacao tree in your neighbourhood, they’re a popular part of many botanical gardens. If you have one in your area, you might be able to see one up close and personal!
Humanity’s love of the cacao tree isn’t new. As far back as the Mayans in South America, people have built entire economies around these little pods, and even used them for currency as recently as the mid-1800s.
Cacao trees like warmth, but too much direct sunlight can kill young trees. This means they’re often found growing in the shade of bigger trees.
There are three main types of cacao trees grown today. Criollo is the rarest and oldest variety. Forastero is more common but also more bitter. Trinitario is a new hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero trees created by modern cocoa farmers.
Nearly all cacao trees grow within a 20-degree band of the equator. Three-quarters of those trees are in an even narrower eight-degree band!
Get a close-up of the cacao tree and a peek at its pods and flowers compliments of Practical Primate.