Gardening for Health

The Challenge of the Chocolate Tree 

By Maria Price 

Chocolate for your sweetie for Valentine’s Day might be just what the doctor ordered in a pandemic. Most of us will buy it ready-made at a grocery store. For those who are up for a challenge, though, I offer some guidance on growing your own chocolate tree. 

I’ve been growing a chocolate tree for the last three years and I’m sorry to say it wasn’t the first tree I purchased. I probably could have filled my pantry with chocolate bars from floor to ceiling for the cost of the three chocolate trees that I killed. It’s a challenge to try and grow a tropical chocolate tree. 

The Aztecs discovered cocoa (Theobroma cacao) and it is thought to have originated in Brazil’s Amazon basin. Venezuela is the home of the world’s best and rarest cacao. Today it is grown in equatorial climates all over the world. Theobroma cacao means food of the gods. Aztec royalty tried to keep it for themselves but the masses revolted and started to consume it. 

The cocoa (or cacao) tree usually starts bearing fruit at 3 to 4 years of age, when it is about 5 to 6 feet tall. The cocoa tree is a cauliflorous plant, which means the flowers grow out of the trunk, which eventually develop into cocoa pods. My tree is about 5 feet tall and produced tiny pink and white flowers, but it did not produce pods. 

The cocoa pods change from green to yellow to red when ripe. Each pod should contain 20 to 40 seeds. The cocoa beans must ferment for about one week and then are dried to create the unique chocolate flavor everybody loves. 

Cocoa trees need very good drainage and some shade. They also need to have a minimum temperature of 60 degrees F. They cannot stay wet too long or they will get a root rot. 

After harvest, the cacao pods are split with a machete and the pulp is laid out to dry in the sun. The beans smell vinegary as fermentation begins. When fermentation is done methodically, cacao explodes with flavor. After fermentation, the beans are dried and roasted and the nib dries and contracts. Nibs are then fed into a mill and ground into a viscous paste and melted into what is called chocolate liquor containing cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The liquor can then become cocoa powder or “eating chocolate” with the addition of sugar, cocoa butter and flavorings. 

Chocolate is somewhat healthy in small quantities (1.5 ounces). The benefits are derived from dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa or greater) not milk or white. Studies on dark chocolate have shown reduction of stress, cognitive enhancement, reduced inflammation, improved blood flow, lowered blood pressure, and increased HDL. Chocolate is full of antioxidants known as flavonoids that help protect against sun damage and a reduced risk of heart disease. I recommend you treat yourself and your sweetie to some dark chocolate truffles this Valentine’s Day.