Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) are small evergreen trees found in the tropical forests of the Americas. Their seeds, better known to the world as cocoa beans, are used to make chocolate and cocoa solids. In the tropical forests of the Americas, chocolate really does grow on trees!
Found in forests all the way from central Mexico to the lowland forests of the Amazon basin, the cacao tree is not large. It can grow to a height of between 4 and 8 meters (13 to 26 feet). It is a member of the Malvaceae family of flowering plants, which includes an estimated 4225 species. Among the cacao tree’s many cousins, perhaps the most well-known and economically important species are cotton, the African plant okra, and in Southeast Asia durian, the edible fruit famous for its strong odor.
Cacao trees thrive in the shaded understory of their tropical forest habitat. The cacao tree produces several clusters of flowers that emerge directly from the trunk and mature branches. These flowers are small and white, with pink outermost parts. Rather than being pollinated by bees or butterflies, in common with the majority of the world’s flowering plants, the flowers produced by the cacao tree are pollinated by tiny midges.
The fruit produced by the cacao tree takes the form of an ovoid pod. Unripe cacao pods are yellow, and as they ripen they take on a more orange hue. Each pod may be up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide. Each of these pods contains anywhere between 40 and 60 individual seeds, embedded in an edible white pulp. It is these dark seeds which are the main ingredient of chocolate. Several hundred seeds are needed to make a pound (0.45 kg) of chocolate.
In Mesoamerica, archaeologists have found pottery vessels containing evidence of the preparation of beverages using cacao dating back to the Early Formative period, around 2500 BC. Botanists believe that cacao trees have been domesticated for at least 3600 years. Genome analysis of cacao trees conducted in 2018 indicated that cacao was first domesticated in Central America, and that modern domesticated trees are descended from that event.
Judging from historical texts and the archaeological record, the beverages prepared by ancient peoples using cacao differed greatly from the sweet, sugar-based products we associate with cacao and chocolate consumption in our own modern societies. Scientific analysis and documentary sources have shown that in addition to vanilla and honey, cacao beverages intended for medicinal or ceremonial use could be prepared with maize or chili peppers.
In the pre-Columbian societies of Central America, the cacao tree was seen as a gift from heaven. The Aztecs told of how the god Quetzalcoatl came down to Earth on the sun’s rays, bringing with him a cacao tree he had stolen from paradise. He taught the Aztecs to roast and grind cacao beans to create a paste, which when mixed with water and heated produced drinking chocolate.
In the Tambopata region, a local cooperative working in the National Reserve’s buffer zone has implemented a cacao-based agroforestry project within the local community in order to reduce deforestation, reclaim degraded areas of forest, and contribute to conservation through sustainable development. The cooperative produces high quality cacao renowned for its fine aroma, destined for export to European countries, including Italy.