The Cacao Tree

Cacao forest. Courtesy of World Cocoa Foundation.Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which is formally known as Theobroma Cacao.

Perhaps it’s the temperament of this mother tree that gives chocolate some of its intense and exotic taste. Cacao trees flourish only in the hot, rainy tropics, in a swath 20 degrees north and south of the Equator.

Cacao trees are delicate plants that live in the understory of tropical forests and require other, taller trees to shelter them from wind and sun. These petite trees top out at 60 feet tall in the wild (although most grow only 20 to 40 feet high), shielded from wind and sun by hardwoods and other trees that stretch as high as 200 feet. See more about where cacao trees grow and how they are grown.

Pods. Courtesy of World Cocoa Foundation.The cacao tree has large glossy leaves that are roughly the size of an outstretched human hand. Young trees have flashy red leaves, while mature trees are green.

This showy tree draws other plants to it. Moss and lichens cling to the bark, as do small orchids. Theobroma Cacao’s own pink or white blossoms adorn the branches. Some of these pretty flowers turn into colorful fruits called pods, filled with sweet juice and bitter seeds. These seeds—the cocoa beans—form the heart of chocolate.

Get a taste of this section:

  • Pods: What is a pod? 
  • Beans: How are the beans processed on the farm?

Did You Know?
Some cacao trees are more than 200 years old, but most give marketable cocoa beans for only the first 25 years.
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