General description

Theobroma cacao is a small, wide-branching, evergreen tree that is native to tropical rainforest areas of Central and South America. It typically grows in the wild to 20-30' tall with glossy, oblong, drooping, bright green leaves (4-8" long). Seeds from this tree are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. Small, fragrant, pink flowers borne directly on the trunk and branches (cauliflorous) bloom throughout the year. Flowers are followed by large, 10- ribbed seed pods (to 12" long and 3" diameter) that ripen to green, red, yellow or yellow-brown. Each pod contains an edible, mucilaginous, sweet-sour, creamy-white pulp embedded with 20-50 flat seeds (often called beans). Seeds are removed, fermented for several days to eliminate their astringent qualities, dried in the sun, cured and roasted. Seeds are then cracked to separate the kernels/nibs from the shell. Fat extracted from the nibs is called cocoa butter which is used in soaps, cosmetics and certain medicinal preparations. The residue is ground to a powder (cocoa) which is used for beverages and flavoring. Chocolate is a food substance in which the cocoa butter is retained. Seeds contain the alkaloid theobromine (from the genus name) that is a nerve stimulant similar to caffeine. Trees were cultivated in Mexico, Central America and South America long before the discovery of America, with the seeds being used not only for food but also as a monetary currency. Although Christopher Columbus brought cacao seeds back to Europe in 1502 at the end of his fourth voyage, cacao did not catch on in Europe for a number of years. The name of chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocolatl which means bitter water. Aztecs in Mexico consumed a bitter drink made from the seeds. Cortez sampled the Aztec beverage and sent the seeds back to Spain in 1520. Genus name comes from the Greek words theo (god) and brosi (food) in apparent honor of cacao as the "food of the gods". Theobroma cacao is now grown throughout the world in humid lowland tropical areas.

Plant requirements

Winter hardy to USDA Zones 11-12 where it is best grown in fertile, organically rich, consistently moist but well-drained soils in full sun to light shade. Site in protected locations. Plants dislike temperatures below 40 degrees F., and are totally intolerant of frost. Plants are tropical evergreen trees that love humid tropical climates. They may be grown in greenhouses in cool climates, but are very difficult to grow as houseplants.


No serious insect or disease problems. In tropical areas, trees are susceptible to a variety of insect pests (including mirids, cocoa pod borer and stem borers) and disease pests (including anthracnose, black pod, witches broom, frosty pod rot, swollen shoot, vascular streak dieback and canker).

Practical use

Commercially grown pantropically for its seeds/beans. Interesting small ornamental tree for tropical areas.


1 - 260 cm