Theobroma cacao



Theobroma cacao

L. 1753

pronounced: thee-OH-broh-muh kah-KAY-oh

(Malvaceae — the hibiscus family)


common names: cacao, cocoa tree

Theobroma is derived from two Greek words, θεος (theos), god, and βρωμα (broma), food – food of the gods; cacao is from the name of the plant in several indigenous Mesoamerican languages: kakaw, kagaw, cacahuatl.

Theobroma cacao is widely distributed from the south-east of Mexico to the Amazon basin. There are several hypotheses as to its origin, now being reassessed in the light of DNA. It appears likely that at the last ice age, a bean-shaped area around the Brazil-Peru border and part of the Colombian-Brazil border may have been a refugium for the species when everywhere else was too cold for it to grow. Both the Maya and the Aztec believed that the plant was discovered by the gods in a mountain filled with other plant foods. The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1502. Within another century its use had spread to many countries in western Europe. Demand for the beverage made from its seeds, the so-called cocoa beans, was so great that the French established cacao plantations in the Caribbean, and the Spanish in the Philippines.

As for the word ‘cocoa’, it is widely believed that its origin was a spelling mistake, never corrected probably because it was easier to pronounce than ‘cacao’. By the middle of the 17th century, sweetened hot chocolate was very popular among the elite of Europe. Under Oliver Cromwell, Britain took over the control of Jamaica from the Spanish, and cacao from the plantations there became the main source of chocolate for the British.
Legend has it that Sir Hans Sloane, an English physician and an avid collector, was the first person to dissolve cocoa in milk, and he subsequently sold the idea to the Cadbury family, whose name still adorns many of our chocolate products.

The leaves of the cacao plant are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10 - 40 cm long and 5 - 20 cm wide. Flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and the older branches, a process known as cauliflory (literally, stem-flower). The flowers are small, 1-2 cm in diameter, with a pink calyx. The chief pollinators are tiny midges, some species in the genus Forcipomyia in the order Diptera.

The fruit, known as the cacao pod, is surprisingly large, given the tiny flowers. It is ovoid, and can grow as large as 30 by 10 cm, ripens yellow to orange in colour, and can weigh up to about 500 g. Each pod contains 20 to 60 seeds (‘beans’) embedded in a white pulp. The seeds are the chief ingredient of chocolate. In Peru, the pulp around the seeds is eaten as a snack, and used to ferment a mildly alcoholic drink. Traditional pre-Spanish beverages made with cacao are still drunk in Mesoamerica, including the Oaxacan drink known as tejate .

The plant is a food source for the caterpillars of a number of Lepidoptera species, including:

      • the Cacoa Armyworm Tiracola plagiata;
      • the moth Oxyodes tricolor; and
      • the Cocoa Pod Borer Conopomorpha cramerella,

all of which can be serious pests.


Photographs taken in a Nelly Bay garden 2013-2014
Page last updated 20th April 2019