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Theobroma cacao

Type Categories Useful Parts


Sterculiaceae Family

Theobroma Genus
Other Names for this Plant

Chocolate, criollo, cacaoyer, kakao


Native to the deep tropical regions of the Americas; the equatorial slopes of the Andes; now cultivated pantropically, especially in West Africa.

Physical Description
A small (4–8 m or 15–26 ft tall) evergreen tree. The leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10–40 cm (4-16 in) long and 5–20 cm (2-8 in) broad. Poisonous and inedible, they are filled with a creamy, milky liquid and taste spicy and unpleasant.

The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; they are small, 1–2 cm (1/2-1 in) diameter, with pink calyx. While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies/moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, forcipomyia midges in the order Diptera. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 15–30 cm (6-12 in) long and 8–10 cm (3-4 in) wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g (1 lb) when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–50% as cocoa butter). Their most noted active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine

General Information

The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1502, when they captured a canoe at Guanaja that contained a quantity of mysterious-looking “almonds.” The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortez and others noted the vast quantities of this beverage that the Aztec emperor consumed, and how it was carefully whipped by his attendants beforehand. Examples of cacao beans along with other agricultural products were brought back to Spain at that time, but it seems that the beverage made from cacao was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles brought from the New World to Spain by Dominican friars to meet Prince Philip (Coe and Coe 1996). Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate had spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Philippine colony (Bloom 1998, Coe 1996). The Nahuatl-derived Spanish word cacao entered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao.

Traditional pre-Hispanic beverages made with cacao are still consumed in Mesoamerica. These include the Oaxacan beverage known as tejate.

There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts, for ceremonial, medicinal uses as well as culinary purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), peanut butter and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala (Kidder 1947) and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp (Hammond and Miksicek 1981; Turner and Miksicek 1984). In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vessels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1100 - 900 B.C.) and in middle formative vessels from Colha, Belize (600-400 B.C.) using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period (ca. 400 A.D.) vessels from a tomb at the archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely that these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels. Cacao was also believed to be ground by the Aztecs and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes.

Medicinal Uses: Reported to be antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic, emmenagogue, and parasiticide, cacao is a folk remedy for alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, parturition, pregnancy, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds (Duke and Wain, 1981Cocoa butter has been described as the world's most expensive fat, used rather extensively in the emollient "bullets" used for hemorrhoids.

Cocoa is prepared by grinding the beans into a paste between hot rollers and mixing it with sugar and starch, part of the fat being removed. Chocolate is prepared in much the same way, but the fat is retained. Oil of Theobroma or cacao butter is a yellowish white solid, with an odour resembling that of cocoa, taste bland and agreeable; generally extracted by expression. It is used as an ingredient in cosmetic ointments and in pharmacy for coating pills and preparing suppositories. It has excellent emollient properties and is used to soften and protect chapped hands and lips. Theobromine, the alkaloid contained in the beans, resembles caffeine in its action, but its effect on the central nervous system is less powerful. Its action on muscle, the kidneys and the heart is more pronounced. It is used principally for its diuretic effect due to stimulation of the renal epithelium; it is especially useful when there is an accumulation of fluid in the body resulting from cardiac failure, when it is often given with digitalis to relieve dilatation. It is also employed in high blood pressure as it dilates the blood-vessels. It is best administered in powders or cachets.

Food Uses: Cacao seeds are the source of commercial cocoa, chocolate, and cocoa butter. Fermented seeds are roasted, cracked, and ground to give a powdery mass from which fat is expressed. This is the cocoa from which a popular beverage is prepared. In the preparation of chocolate, this mass is mixed with sugar, flavoring, and extra cocoa fat. Milk chocolate incorporates milk as well.

Native use is in the sauce for turkey, mole, which is now a part of Mexican cuisine

Cultivation: Transplant in few months (when ca 0.6 m tall) into shaded fields at 2.4 m x 2.4 m or 3.6 m x 3.6 m. Spacing is closer if soils are poor and elevations above 300 m. Fields should remain shaded for 3 years. Remove floral buds until trees are 5 years old. Cacao is of ten intercropped with other trees of economic value, as bananas, rubber, oil palm, or coconut. Weeding is by hand or herbicides. Irrigation may be practiced, but drain ditches should always be provided to prevent excess water. Responds to fertilizers, mostly in the absence of shade; recommended is 5 cwt urea, 2.5 cwt triple superphosphate, 10 cwt potassium sulfate per hectare. Windbreaks are usually provided.

Propagation: Propagation may be by cuttings, buddings or graftings, but seeding is cheaper. Seeds germinate at maturity, and are viable only a short time. They may be stored 10–13 weeks if moisture content is kept at 50%. Soon after picking, pulp is removed from seed which are planted in shaded nursery beds or baskets

Other Notes: Mayas and Aztec attributed divine origin to cocoa tree (brought by god Quetzacoatl). The sacred beverage called "chocolatl" was consumed from golden cups.

Legend says that in the time of the Aztec Empire as a part of the ceremony of coronation and religious rituals, the priests and nobility would sip reverently a liquid made from a plant that had been offered as gift to humanity from the God of the Air, Quetzalccoatl.

The drink, Chocolate, was invested with sacred powers because it was believed that only through partaking of this beverage the humans would acquire the ability to communicate with their God.

The Maya believed that the kakaw (cacao) was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya. According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane (Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985). The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao colored markings; additional animal sacrifices; offerings of cacao, feathers and incense; and an exchange of gifts. In a similar creation story, the Mexica (Aztec) god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao (cacahuatl: "'bitter water"'), in a mountain filled with other plant foods (Coe 1996, Townsend 1992). Cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon of Mexica deities and the Madrid Codex depicts priests lancing their ear lobes (autosacrifice) and covering the cacao with blood as a suitable sacrifice to the gods. The cacao beverage as ritual were used only by men, as it was believed to be toxic for women and children.

Cacao beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. At one point the Aztec empire received a yearly tribute of 980 loads (xiquipil in nahuatl) of cacao, in addition to other goods. Each load represented exactly 8000 beans. The buying power of quality beans was such that 80-100 beans could buy a new cloth mantle. The use of cacao beans as currency is also known to have spawned counterfeiters during the Aztec empire.

In some areas, such as Yucatán, cacao beans were still used in place of small coins as late as the 1840s


Warning: Due to the presence of Caffeine, Theobromine in the leaves and seeds it can be toxic. Causing the symptoms of Inducing headache, nausea, insomnia, restlessness, excitement, mild delirium, muscle tremor, tachycardia, and extrasystoles.

*Note: Unsweetened (baker's) chocolate contains 8-10 times the amount of Theobromine as milk chocolate. Semi-sweet chocolate falls roughly in between the two for Theobromine content. White chocolate contains Theobromine, but in such small amounts that Theobromine poisoning is unlikely. Caffeine is present in chocolate, but less than Theobromine

Koehlers Medicinal-Plants 1887<br><br>[Image in Public Domain]<br><br>

Koehlers Medicinal-Plants 1887<br><br>[Image in Public Domain]<br><br>

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