Theobroma cacao – The Plants of the Amazon

by | Botany

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Read the transcript below:

Welcome to today’s episode of Plants of the Amazon!

As the largest tropical rainforest in the Americas, the Amazonian rainforest has unparalleled biodiversity.

One in ten species in the world lives in this rainforest, making it a habitat for the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world.

Before we dive into this episode’s plant, let’s answer last episode’s plant trivia: what plant moves away when it is touched?

The answer is, Mimosa pudica – this plant is dubbed a Shameplant, or a Touch Me Not – not to be confused with the flowers. This plant is a flowering annual plant that closes its leaves in upon itself like a book when it is touched. They will open again several minutes after the disturbance is gone. 

Thanks to Nick Moore for this video showcasing Mimosa pudica.

Now let’s introduce the plant we’ll be chatting about for this episode: Theobroma cacao.

This plant has been an economically and culturally important part of human history – and chances are you’ve had a product containing it this very week!

This is the origin of processed chocolate, whether you’re having it in bar-form, powder, baked goods, cocoa butter… Pretty much anything cocoa or chocolate, which is very popular in our culture, is made from this one tree.

This is a small, evergreen tree that belongs to the Malvaceae family, which also houses the Mallow, Hibiscus, Cotton, and Okra, among many other economically, medicinally and ecologically important plants.

It’s safe to say that this plant has encouraged a large amount of change on a global scale, from our habits and cravings, to traditions and culinary innovation.

Cacao tree leaves are alternate, unlobed leaves that are long and broad. The tree itself grows to heights of 4-8 meters, or 13-26 feet, so it’s relatively small compared to some other trees native to the Amazon Basin.

The brown bark can range from a subtle brownish-grey to almost black. It grows multiple pods along the length of the tree that look a bit like elongated lemons. Described as an ovoid pod, they can reach lengths of 30 cm, or nearly 12 inches long. These seed pods ripen from green to yellow, to orange then eventually a rich reddish-brown. In this ripened state, each pod can weigh a little over 1 pound and contain up to 60 cocoa seeds, or “beans.”

Image Credit: CT Cooper [Public domain]

These seed pods also contain a white-ish pulp that surrounds and cushions the seeds, giving it a fleshy, ribbed appearance. This pulp is used in some countries’ cuisine as an additive to juices, smoothies, jellies, alcohol, and other dishes.

You might expect the tree to smell just as deliciously rich and chocolatey as the end product, but before roasting, there’s not even a hint of that smell. Most of the time, cacao trees are described as “earthy” or even as “having no smell.”

 

The flowers are actually really interesting looking, and if they weren’t so close to the bark, and so small, it would surprise me that more gardeners haven’t sought after the blooms.

The best way I can explain this is, before they bloom, they look like white rosebuds that extend only a few inches from the bark of the tree. They grow in clusters directly from the trunk, and the stems are white to red.

The petals are white to yellow, with red stamens, and it looks like a passionflower cross-bred with a daffodil and an orchid in one wild night.

Essentially, I would expect to see these in a movie from H.R. Giger days, maybe as a backdrop to the Alien pods. Really, though, they’re gorgeous and exotic looking.

Photo Credit: Vinayaraj [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Cacao can be found from the Amazon basin, as far north as northern Mexico, as well as West African countries such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

While it is not currently endangered, a lot of people are concerned about it becoming completely extinct by 2050, particularly along Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where more than 50% of the world’s cocoa is produced. This is due to rising temperatures, which places the cacao tree in regions that are unsustainably hot, if global temperatures continue to rise.

 

But, cacao hasn’t always been a culinary plant. Many cultures have used cacao medicinally. This plant is a rich source of antioxidants, with more phenolic antioxidants than most foods according to some studies.

Cacao, thus cocoa and chocolate, also contains catechins, which is an excellent compound also found in tea and many berries. Catechins have been studied for having a positive effect in reducing inflammation, helping combat cancer, prevent cell damage, and many other promising benefits.

Cacao also contains small amounts of caffeine and a compound called theobromine. These two compounds are responsible for how much chocolate is enjoyed, without an addictive quality. Theobromine levels are highest in dark chocolates with a high cacao content, or raw nibs. Both caffeine and theobromine are alkaloids that belongs to a group of methylxanthines, and at lower doses it has been known to act as an immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, and bronchoprotective agent. In other words, it helps regulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, and helps protect against the narrowing of air passages in the lungs.

Theobromine has also been shown to produce a more positive attitude and happier behaviors overall.

This is, of course, all in lower dosages that we typically consume. In particularly high dosages, theobromine is toxic to people as well, but, if you’re overdosing on chocolate, it’s time to look at your dietary habits, as well. We’re going to jump into some fun numbers for a minute, so bear with this:

Theobromine is considered toxic at 1,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Let’s say, if you weigh 165 pounds (or 75kg) you would need to eat 75,000mg of theobromine to reach a toxic level.

Yes, that also means that depending on your body weight and the amount of theobromine ingested, it can be fatal.

Now, of course, the darker chocolate, the higher the raw cacao content, right? So, the average baker’s chocolate has 16mg of theobromine per gram. The average processed chocolate bar contains 2.4mg of theobromine per gram, and that’s half of what dark chocolate contains.

That means…

You would need to eat 332 standard dark chocolate bars, or 7,084 chocolate kisses within a span of 17 hours to reach toxic levels.

Please don’t eat that much chocolate, folks.

Now, that said, as you may know, many animals such as cats, dogs, and many of our other favorite pets have a much lower tolerance to chocolate toxicity, so keep your chocolate stash far from their curious paws.

Now, a unique allergy we almost never hear about in mainstream news is chocolate allergy. Can you be allergic to chocolate? Of course you can!

Your body can have an allergy to almost any plant or substance depending on what it is sensitive to, so yes, chocolate allergies are a very real thing.

Chocolate allergies tend to manifest with several symptoms that are typical of allergens. You might feel swelling in your eyes, nose, throat, or lungs. More severe allergies may cause you to develop shortness of breath, stomach cramps, hives, and wheezing.

If you are sensitive to chocolate, but not allergic, you may experience headaches, nausea, acne, bloating, or gas, and you might even experience dermatitis where the chocolate came in contact with your skin.

If you are sensitive to caffeine, you may also experience symptoms related to that, such as high blood pressure, shakiness, dizziness, fast heartrate, and trouble sleeping.

While a very small percentage of the population is allergic to chocolate, about fifteen percent of the population is allergic to nickel. Chocolate bars and several nuts commonly found in candy may trigger symptoms of an allergy that are caused by nickel, rather than the chocolate itself.

 

But, that’s enough about that. Let’s move on to how Theobroma cacao supports the ecosystem around it, shall we?

Typically, the seeds from the cacao tree are rather bitter, which is an excellent defense mechanism – at least until humans learned how to mix it with milk and sugar. The sweet, tangy pulp that surrounds the beans, however, is a favorite among many animals in the Amazon, like monkeys, birds, and fruit bats. These animals tend to spit out the strong-tasting seeds and favor the pulp, which allows new trees to begin taking root.

Midges, which are tiny flies, are attracted to the pods, or fruits of the tree, that have fallen and begun to rot around the base of the tree. These midges feed many other animals in the rainforest, like spiders, fish, beetles, frogs, and small birds.

 

So, let’s get theoretical here. Let’s say you wanted to grow Theobroma cacao in your backyard. We all know that planting a 30-foot evergreen tree isn’t likely a good idea unless you have a large enough plot of land, but bear with me.

Theobroma cacao typically grows below larger hardwood tree species, providing indirect, bright light from the canopy above.

It thrives in the rainforest climate, so temperatures need to stay steady between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit, or 26 to 32 degrees Celsius, almost year round. It does not tolerate freezing weather well, but it does require a constant humidity greater than 70 to 75 percent.

The cacao tree germinates into a taproot, so it needs a deep, loamy, well-draining soil that’s on the acidic side, with a large amount of organic matter over the top.

It’s important to rinse salt that has accrued out of the soil every year or so, as it can block the roots from absorbing enough nutrients in the soil.

In just under a year from seed, you’ll start seeing mature pods that you can either harvest or enjoy as an interesting conversation piece for when guests are over.

 

This plant was first developed as a crop after its discovery in the Amazon Basin approximately 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, according to some sources. Other documents place evidence of a fermented beverage made from chocolate back in 450 BC.

In 2018, researchers analyzed the genome of cultivated Theobroma cacao trees and everything pointed towards the supposed original domestication event, roughly 3,600 years ago in Central America; likely in the upper Amazon region.

The name Theobroma originates from Latin “Food of the Gods”, and it’s not hard to tell why it’s called that.

The word chocolate comes from the Aztec “xocolatl” which means bitter water. If you’ve ever had cacao nibs in its raw form, or a bar of chocolate that is 94% or more of cacao, then you know that’s a perfect description. The chocolate we see in everyday life typically has milk, vanilla, and sugar added to it to produce a sweeter, smoother taste, while raw cacao is earthy and bitter.

The early Mesoamerican cultures used cacao extensively in food, drinks, and alcoholic beverages.

Cacao beans served a dual purpose; one of a ritual and recreational drink, and one of a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztec empire received 980 loads of cacao yearly, each load containing exactly 8,000 beans.

According the Aztec mythology, there was a Feathered Serpent – known as Quetzalcoatl – who was symbolically tied to the dawn, the merchants, arts, learning and knowledge. This deity discovered cacao in a mountain filled with other vegetation and food for the people.  

According to the Maya mythology, they believe that cacao was gifted to the people by a feathered serpent deity after they were created from maize. Each year, the Maya celebrated these events with an annual festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chauj.

 

When Spanish conquistadors arrived, they met with the Aztec in the capital, around 1519, and discovered chocolate. This was also known as the beginning of the Spanish-Mexican War.

The Spanish were the first to frequently add sugar and other spices to the drink. They brought cacao and other agriculture back to Spain, after which point chocolate had become incredibly popular throughout the country. The Spanish kept their method of producing this chocolate a secret from Europeans for almost 100 years before the secret was out. Soon, chocolate had appeared all across Europe, starting with France, where special “chocolate houses” would serve the social elite.

When steam-powered machines began to grow in popularity, the production of cocoa powder became faster, easier, and more affordable to make. In 1850, a man named Joseph Fry found that adding cacao butter to the powdered mass gave the chocolate form, and that he could press it into bars, drops, and other shapes.

That began the culinary revolution of chocolate. Today, we have chocolate in dozens of forms in the candy aisle of every supermarket and convenience store.

We’re nearing the end of our podcast today, which means it’s time for some good ol’ plant trivia, where I ask a question and you send in your answers. Visit HerbSpeak.com to submit your answer!

What is the most abundant substance in the plant kingdom that no mammal can digest?

Find out next episode when I reveal the answer!

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacaohttps://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cacao-vs-cocoahttps://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/theobroma-cacaohttps://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/history-of-cocoa/https://www.icco.org/faq/51-cocoa-trees/114-what-is-the-origin-of-the-cocoa-tree.htmlhttps://cocoainitiative.org/news-media-post/cocoa-farmers-in-ghana-experience-poverty-and-economic-vulnerability/https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/899114/chocolate-shortage-cocoa-bean-cacao-tree-climate-change-global-warming-extinctionhttps://pfaf.org/USER/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Theobroma+cacaohttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696435/https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/catechinhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4335269/https://www.drugs.com/drug-class/methylxanthines.htmlhttps://www.popsci.com/chocolate-theobromine-toxic-amount/https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/chocolate-allergy#symptomshttps://www.phytochemicals.info/phytochemicals/theobromine.php

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

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