Valentine’s Day, with store shelves piled high with those heart-shaped boxes of candy, got me to thinking about the pleasure cacao trees have given the world.
The fruit of the cacao tree are large football-shaped pods, each containing up to100 seeds. Cacao seeds are the basis of all chocolate.
The seeds, or beans, are very bitter, but the pulp that surrounds them is sweet and when it is allowed to ferment, the bitterness of the beans is reduced and they develop a heady chocolaty aroma. The beans are then dried, cleaned, graded, packed and shipped for processing into chocolate products.
Cacaos are unusually beautiful trees, having both creamy pink flowers and fruit forming directly on the trunk all year long. The leaves are large and glossy. Young trees have flashy red leaves and mature trees’ leaves are green. I read a fascinating article that stated cacao leaves can move 90 degrees from vertical to horizontal and back to better access sunlight or to protect young leaves. This is possible because a node at the leaf base changes its stiffness with changes in air temperature.
An understory tree, the tropical cacao’s growing range hugs the Equator, preferring altitudes of 1,300 to 2,300 feet. It originated in Central or South America, where the largest number of species are found; however, over half of the world’s supply of commercial cacao now comes from the East African countries of Cote D’Ivorie (Ivory Coast) and Ghana, followed by Indonesia.
The history of chocolate crosses many countries and cultures. Both Mayans and Aztecs offered a beverage made from cacao seeds to their gods. The Mayans also drank it before going into battle while the Aztecs used the beans as currency. Conquerors like Hernando Cortes introduced chocolate to Spain where, mixed with sugar, it became a favorite drink. Later, Europeans added milk. Once considered a guilty indulgence, today chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is being praised for its health benefits.
— Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year. Her Cedarleaf Farm in Chester County is a Certified Stewardship Forest and part of the American Tree Farm System.