The Art of Growing Cacao: Cultivating Cocoa Tree Seeds

When life throws you challenges, chocolate has a magical ability to soothe and comfort. For those of us who love and crave chocolate, the idea of growing our own cacao tree can be enticing. But how exactly can we grow cocoa beans from cocoa tree seeds? In this article, we will explore the art of growing cacao trees and discover valuable cocoa tree information.

The Fascinating World of Cacao Plants

The origin of cocoa beans can be traced back millions of years ago to cacao trees, belonging to the Theobroma genus in South America. Among the 22 species of Theobroma, T. cacao is the most common. Archaeological evidence suggests that even the ancient Mayan civilization was enjoying cacao as early as 400 B.C. The Aztecs also held the cacao bean in high regard.

It was in 1502 that Christopher Columbus, during his voyage to Nicaragua, became the first non-native to taste chocolate. However, it wasn’t until Hernan Cortes, the leader of a 1519 expedition to the Aztec empire, introduced chocolate to Spain. The initially unpalatable Aztec xocoatl (chocolate drink) eventually gained popularity in the Spanish courts after the addition of sugar.

Efforts to grow cacao in Spanish territories such as the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, and Haiti proved challenging. It was in 1635 that Spanish Capuchin friars achieved some success in cultivating cacao in Ecuador. As Europe’s obsession with cocoa grew, various countries raced to establish cocoa plantations. The establishment of cocoa plantations in Africa by the Dutch and Swiss during the seventeenth century further fueled the demand for this precious bean.

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Today, cocoa is primarily produced in countries located between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south of the Equator. The leading producers are Cote-d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia.

Cacao trees have an impressive lifespan, reaching up to 100 years, but they are considered productive for only around 60 years. While naturally grown cacao trees develop a long taproot from cocoa tree seeds, commercial cultivation often relies on vegetative reproduction through cuttings, resulting in taproot-less trees. Under wild conditions, these trees can grow over 50 feet tall, but for cultivation purposes, they are usually pruned to half that height. The leaves emerge with a reddish hue, eventually turning glossy green, reaching up to two feet in length. Delicate pink or white flowers cluster on the trunk or lower branches during the spring and summer. Once pollinated, these flowers transform into ridged pods, stretching up to 14 inches long and filled with beans.

The Art of Growing Cocoa Beans

Cacao trees thrive in the understory of warm rainforests, where they are sheltered from the sun and wind. Growing cacao trees successfully requires recreating these conditions. In the United States, cacao trees can only be grown in USDA zones 11-13, encompassing Hawaii, parts of southern Florida, southern California, and tropical Puerto Rico. If you do not reside in these tropical regions, it is still possible to grow cacao trees under warm and humid conditions in a greenhouse, although it may require more vigilant care.

To begin, you will need cocoa tree seeds that are still in the pod or have been kept moist since removal. If the seeds dry out, they lose their viability. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for seeds to begin sprouting while still in the pod. If your seeds have not yet developed roots, place them between damp paper towels in a warm area (around 80°F or 26°C) until they begin to root.

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Next, pot the rooted beans in individual 4-inch pots filled with damp seed starter soil. Plant the seed vertically with the root end downwards, covering it with soil just up to the top of the seed. Use plastic wrap to cover the pots and place them on a germination mat to maintain a temperature in the 80s (around 27°C).

Within 5-10 days, the seeds should sprout. At this stage, remove the plastic wrap and position the seedlings on a partially shaded windowsill or under the end of a grow light.

Nurturing Your Cocoa Tree

As your cocoa tree seedling grows, it will need to be transplanted into larger pots successively. Keep the plant damp and maintain temperatures between 65-85°F (18-29°C) – the warmer, the better. For optimal growth, fertilize the tree every two weeks from spring through fall, using fish emulsion or a similar fertilizer with a ratio of 2-4-1. Mix one tablespoon (15 mL) of fertilizer per gallon (4 L) of water.

If you reside in a tropical region, you can transplant your tree when it reaches a height of two feet (61 cm). Choose a well-draining area rich in humus, with a pH level near 6.5. Position the cacao tree approximately 10 feet (3 m) away from a taller evergreen that can provide partial shade and protect it from strong winds.

Dig a hole three times the depth and width of the tree’s root ball. Fill two-thirds of the loose soil back into the hole, placing the tree on top of the mound at the same level it grew in its pot. Gradually fill in the remaining soil around the tree, ensuring it is well-watered. To conserve moisture, spread a layer of mulch 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 cm) thick around the base of the tree, keeping it at least eight inches (20.5 cm) away from the trunk.

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Depending on rainfall, your cacao tree will require 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of water per week. Avoid over-watering and provide nutrients by feeding it with 1/8 pound (57 gr) of fertilizer with a 6-6-6 ratio every two weeks. As the tree matures, increase the amount to 1 pound (454 gr) of fertilizer every two months until it reaches one year of age.

The tree should start flowering when it is 3-4 years old and approximately five feet (1.5 m) tall. Hand-pollination of the flowers is necessary, ideally in the early morning. Do not worry if some pods drop; it is natural for a few to shrivel, leaving no more than two pods on each cushion.

Once the beans are ripe and ready for harvest, your journey continues. Extensive fermentation, roasting, and grinding are required before you can enjoy a cup of cocoa made from your very own cacao beans.

Cacao Tree

Watch this video to see the beauty of cacao tree cultivation: Cacao Tree Cultivation.

Start on your own cacao-growing adventure and experience the joy of nurturing a tree that bears the fruits of one of the world’s most beloved treats. Remember, patience and dedication are key when delving into the art of growing cocoa trees.

For more information and to explore a wide selection of cocoa-related products, visit the Ames Farm Center.