Making Cacao Growing a Piece of Cake


As published in the Miami Herald

Chocolate really does grow on trees; although not as little chocolates wrapped up in foil. Chocolate comes from the seeds of the understory tree Theobroma cacao, a tropical rainforest species closely intertwined with the needs of mankind. Cocoa cultivation began in the Americas by the hands of the Maya in Central America, ca. 1500 BC. The Maya attributed divine origin to cocoa, being brought down from heaven by their God Quetzacoatl. The cocoa beans were so precious in fact that they were used as a currency.

plants are now cultivated in rainforest habitats throughout the tropics. Shaded
agro ecosystems such as cacao provide a promising means of bring the challenges
of creating forest-like habitat for tropical biodiversity in a rapidly
deforested landscape, while simultaneously providing a lucrative crop for the
agricultural communities.


is one of the most environmentally sustainable tropical food crops. Cacao today
still thrives throughout most of the lowland tropics sharing their needs with
diverse mixture of shade trees. Because of cultural tradition, economic
necessity, and crop biology, cacao is grown beneath larger trees that form a
shade canopy, creating a closed, forest-like habitat within the typically open,
degraded agricultural landscape. Though the management of this shade canopy can
vary tremendously from crop to crop and within a crop type, the presence of a
shade canopy generally provides some benefit to the farmer, while improving the
ability of these agricultural habitats to harbor a diverse array of flora and
fauna with a biodiversity-friendly cacao.


good consuming chocolate, particularly if you consume products that help
sustain communities and natural resources such as rainforests.



fruit of the cacao tree is a pod that contains a sweetish pulp that clings
tightly to the seeds. The pulp is eaten as a dessert and serves for juices,
both fresh and fermented. The seeds or “beans” are fermented while
still in the pulp, dried, roasted and processed into cocao, the raw material for


trees grow and bear fruit in a band 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
They thrive on tropical rains and partial shade. A thick layer of leaf litter
or compost and a still, moist environment is ideal for the cacao tree. Cacao
can be grown in South Florida given attention
to a few specific conditions.


Growing Cacao In South Florida


an area protected from wind and providing partial shade. The richest organic
soil in your home garden should be devoted to your cacao plant for optimal
conditions. The soil should be moist, but not water-logged, as this will cause
disease on the roots and the developing pods of your plant. In absence of a
rich organic soil a large hole can be dug and filled with a mixture of peat
moss and sand. This will allow for proper root development and health of the


your home garden the cacao tree will take up to four years to begin to bear
fruit. The time from flower pollination to a fully developed pod is from five
to seven months. The pods come in a rainbow of colors from green to yellow, red
and purple. Some pods are striped with two and even three colors at full
maturity. There could be no easier display than an eye-catching grouping of
cacao pods on a simple table. 


Selecting tree: Cocoa
plants can be purchased from local specialty nurseries in Florida; however, they are usually seedling
plants. Seedling cacao plants may be self-incompatible, and their flowering
will result in little or no pod production. It is a good idea to plant multiple
plants to increase pollination and the chance of fruit production. There are
self-fruitful types of cacao that will bloom and fruit in isolation, but these
are not generally available in South Florida
at this time.


Cold protection must be provided for young trees by covering the entire tree with a
blanket or with the use of a large cardboard box. Even with protection, the
leaves of the cacao tree will develop brown leaf edges during the winter and
Spring months due to cold, low humidity and winds. Thoroughly watering the area
around your tree on the day of cold danger will also help to protect it. The well-watered
soil will absorb more solar radiation than dry soil, radiating heat during the


Pruning: Pruning
for height control may be necessary if all goes well. Pruning should be done at
the end of the summer to prepare the tree for the following crop.


Fertilizing: A granular fertilizer
like an 8-3-9 or
similar formulation should be applied in June and August. The granular
fertilizer should be spread lightly below the drip line.  A foliar minor element spray and iron drench can
be done in June and August to improve the growth of the tree.


How to Make Chocolate
from Scratch


1. Harvest:  harvest
mature cacao pods and scooped out the seeds. The cacao beans, still covered in
sweet and fruity pulp.


2. Fermentation: Pour the seeds in water for 3 days for fermentation.

3. Drying: Remove the water and dried the seeds in the sun. The drying process takes 1weeks, and
during that period the color changes from reddish brown to dark brown.

4. Roasting:
Cacao beans can be roasted in your oven at home. The temperature and time
of roasting affects the flavor and color of the chocolate. The first roast
started off with a 425 degree oven for 7 minutes, then 325 for eight minutes,
and finally 260 degrees for 10 minutes.

5. Winnowing:
Let it cool and separate the beans from the hulls. Remove the husk from the
chocolate. You will need to first crack the cacao bean and then blow the husk

5. Grinding:
Placing the beans in coffee grinding. You will continue to pass the nibs
through the grinder to remove more husks and refine the chocolate. After just a
few moments the beans were reduced to the cacao paste. Keep it in a room
temperature in a plastic container.

This is the base for any chocolate recipes.

Ledesma is Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.