Most people are familiar with this plant: its beans are the basis for one of the most beloved food products on the grocery shelf—chocolate! A low-growing, tropical shrub native to South America, this plant prefers warmer climate zones similar to that of its homeland. This tree will grow to between 12 and 15′ tall and produces large yellow pods that contain the earthy cacao bean. Unlike many other fruit producing trees, the flowers and berries of the cacao tree grow directly from the trunk rather than off of the branches. Although revered for its teeny beans, the cacao’s fruit pods also possess a delicious, tangy pulp that should not be missed! Please note that this tree will not grow well outdoors in non-tropical environments and if grown indoors (even in a greenhouse), it may not produce fruit.
Criollo cacao varietals are thought to have been the original types of cacao that were used in drinks and chocolate making by ancient Central and South Americans. However, today they are a rarity due to the trees susceptibility to pests and disease. While their pest problems may make them a bit more high maintenance than other types of trees, the unique, less bitter flavor of the beans they produce are well worth the extra effort. The pods of this tree are reddish-yellow in color with bumpy skins and deep furrows. While the yield of pods is slightly lower for the Criollo than other varietals, the beans are considered to be of exceptional quality and can be mixed with other types of beans to make tasty treats. The Chuao, Porcelana and Ocumare 61 are the best known and most highly coveted types of Criollo.
Seed Depth: 1–2″
Space Between Plants: 10″
Space Between Rows: 24″
Germination Soil Temperature: 70–75 °F
Days for Germination: 20–30
Sow Indoors: A month before the onset of spring, using a heat pad to keep seedlings warm.
Sow Outdoors: After seedlings have developed more that two leaves.
Vegetative: Cuttings are taken by a variety of methods, including budding. Propagation via cuttings or air layering can provide efficiency for larger productions of cacao. If grown from cuttings it will reach maturity in about 6 months, compared to from a seed which can be as many as five years.
Grows best in a humid tropical environment, mostly in the belt between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Cacao will not grow well outside of the 65–90°F temperature range so you will need to plant in a greenhouse if you would like to grow this tree in a cooler climate. Lots of rainfall is recorded in this environment, so soil moisture is a must for the cacao.
Natural: In its natural habitat, the cacao plant grows in the understory of the tropical rain forest where it is protected by larger shade-producing trees. When young, it prefers partial to full shade. As it gets older and taller, it can handle full sun.
Artificial: Use LED or HID lamps. Needs 12 hours of light per day.
Soil: Proper soil for cacao needs to be tilled about a foot and a half deep for their tap root system to be happy. It prefers loamy, well-drained soil. That said, this species cannot handle drought, so provide good water retention. This plant can grow in a wide range of pH and can tolerate mildly acidic and basic soils. A high amount of organic matter is utilized in cacao growth, so feed compost regularly.
Soilless: Grows best in a sand culture or supplemented media such as coco coir and perlite.
Hydroponics: A deep water culture is recommended due to the large size of the tree and root system.
Aeroponics: Can thrive in an aeroponic system if large enough.
Water: As these plants are indigenous to areas associated with heavy rainfall, plenty of water is necessary.
Nutrients: Apply fertilizer once in the spring and once in the fall about 3′ away from the base of the tree. This should be done after trimming, pruning, weeding and any insecticidal applications have been enforced.
Foliar: Carbamate is used on the undersides of leaves to deactivate the metabolic process of attacking insects. Leaves and pods like to be wet, so spray with water in drier climates.
Pruning: Cacao can be a tall shrub or medium tree. For best results, keep trimmed for easy access and harvesting.
Mulching: Mulch to prevent an overgrowth of unwanted weeds.
Rotation: Slash and burn is the common practice to rejuvenate land and get rid of older plants that will gradually produce less and less cacao pods.
Companions: Grows well with large trees that offer shade.
Harvest: Plants will start producing once they are around 5 years of age. The tree will maintain flowering and fruiting all year long, although main harvesting times will be June and December. The outer casing of the fruit will turn from red to an orange yellow when ready to be picked. There are approximately 40 seeds in each pod.
Storage: Fresh seeds will last about 15 days. Preserve whole beans in an air tight container in a cool dark place, after drying. The helpful links section has step by step instructions for this process.
Fun Fact: Cacao seeds contain the active alkaloid theobromine that provides effects closely related to caffeine. Theobromine is also the active ingredient in yerba maté.
Preserve: You can make cacao powder by simply taking some of your stored and dried cacao pods and grinding them in a coffee grinder.
Prepare: To make cacao butter, wash fresh pods and place evenly on a baking sheet to roast at about 120°F for 90 minutes. Cool the pods to room temperature. Using a small hammer, lightly crack the pods to separate the inner portion from the outer shell. Separate the shells from the beans. Then, grind the inner portion of the cacao, called nibs, until a liquid forms. Take that liquid and strain it through a cheese cloth to separate the oil and fat. And voilà! Fresh, homemade cacao butter.
Nutritional: Provides potassium, zinc, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. Also a good source of protein.
Medicinal: Some say that eating one bar of chocolate high in cacao per day can lower blood pressure. Fermented cacao powder is used to prevent heart disease.
Warnings: Theobromine is toxic to cats and dogs. Avoid consuming excessive amounts of cacao during pregnancy and breast feeding.