Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) is native to tropical forests of Central and South America. It eventually attains the height of 12 m, and continues cropping for 100 years. The cultivated varieties of cacao are much smaller and more fertile. Recently cocoa trees have been introduced to Africa, where they keep flowering and cropping year round due to favourable growing conditions.
The fruit of cocoa resembles a large pod and weighs from 0.5 to 1,5 kg. The seeds, which are called cacao beans, are used to produce chocolate. When fresh, they are whitish, odourless and acrid. After picking, the pods are left to ferment. During this process, the fruit, which surrounds beans, softens, while beans harden. After fermentation, beans are separated, sorted and air-dried. After that they are picked over, cleaned and roasted. The husks are removed during roasting. Then the beans are ground and solid cocoa oil or butter is extracted, which is the main ingredient for chocolate production.
More than 22 species of plants belong to the genus Theobroma. One plant of the genus, known in Brazil by the name of [banner] Capausu (Theobroma grandiflora), can be grown as a houseplant. It is a small evergreen tree with bright green leathery leaves, which are up to 35 cm long and 10 cm wide. It produces flowers all year round. The flowers are large, star-shaped, held singly or in racemes of 3-5 flowers, and are normally pollinated by bees and other insects. If you want to have a lot of fruit, it is best to grow at least two plants at home, and to cross-pollinate them, which will ensure that the plants produce fruit. Pods are large and heavy, weighing around 2 kg, and measuring up to 25 cm long and 15 cm wide. Their skin is semi-woody, reddish brown, and the pulp, holding some 20-40 seeds, is juicy and fragrant. In native habitats, the seeds are distributed by birds or monkeys which are very fond of the fruit. When grown as houseplants, they bear smaller fruit, and it takes 4 to 5 months from flowering to ripening. A 4 to 5 year old plant can yield from 10 to 30 pods a year.
The fruit of the Cupuasu are valued not for the seeds, but for the juicy and fragrant pulp, which comprises about a third of a fruit. Its taste is exotic and very aromatic. It is used to produce juice, jams, yoghurts and delicious ice cream.
In their native range Cupuasu crops all year round, yielding the majority of fruit in the period between February and April. Ripe fruit fall down from the trees and rot fast, so they should be picked regularly. Unripe fruit, when picked too early, usually do not fully ripen – they either rot, or loose their taste and fragrance.
The seeds of Cupuasu make a fifth of a fruit. After fermentation there is no way to tell them apart from the true cocoa beans neither by the taste nor by the smell. However, chocolate produced from these beans does not melt in the mouth, and is considered to be inferior, and therefore cheaper. Traditionally, when making chocolate, no more than 10% of cocoa butter can be replaced by the butter of Cupuasu.
Cupuasu trees dislike full sun, since it scorches their leaves. Young plants are especially vulnerable. When grown as houseplants, they should be kept lightly shaded by curtain and at some distance from the heat source. They feel most comfortable when temperature keeps around 22-27oC all year round. Cupuaçu thrives when planted in fertile and free-draining soil, and responds well to generous watering, but it should not be left in standing water. Starting with spring, feed the plant with diluted or liquid complete fertilizer containing microelements. This plant dislikes dry air, which results in browning of leaf edges, so it grows best when kept in a damp conservatory or next to an electric air humidifier. For the best results, spray plants with water often or keep the pot on a tray with a layer of clay granules on the bottom.
Propagation is from seed, by cuttings or grafting. The seedless cultivars are normally propagated by cuttings. These plants grow more compact, they adapt better to being grown inside, and some of them are self-pollinating. Seeds are available from the seed shops abroad. Prior to sowing, they should be soaked for a few days in water (changing water every day) and kept warm. Most seeds will normally germinate in 2-3 weeks at temperatures of 25-30oC, but it may take up to several month for some of them. Transplant seedling into individual pots without delay.
© Giedra Bartas, 2011