Theobroma cacao

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Related Links
T. cacao, pound variety in CATIE germplasm collection, Turrialba, Costa Rica.
© David Boshier
T. cacao, drying seed, Limon, Costa Rica.
© David Boshier
T. cacao, dry seed.
© David Boshier
Flower and fruit at Hana Hwy, Maui, Hawaii
© Forest and Kim Starr
Mature pods, Cameroon
© Anthony Simons
Baby fruits growing from trunk
© Trade winds fruit
Ripe yellow podded variety
© Trade winds fruit
Cacao growing in the shade of a short-term timber tree.
© Craig Elevitch

Local names:
Arabic (kâkâû), Burmese (kokoe), Dutch (Cacaoboom), English (cocoa,cacao,chocolate tree,Nicaraguan cocoa shade), French (cacao,cacaoyer,cacaotier), German (Kakaobaum), Indonesian (coklat), Italian (Cacao (albero)), Khmer (kakaaw), Malay (pokok coklat), S

Theobroma cacao is cauliflorous and semi-deciduous. The tree is low, reaching an average height of 5-10 m. The main trunk is short; branches in whorls of 5, dimorphic; vertical chupons growing from the trunk have leaves arranged in 5/8 phyllotaxy. The lateral branches (fans) have 1/2 phyllotaxy.

Petiole with 2 joined pulvini, one at the base and the other at the point of insertion of the leaf. Stipules 2, deciduous. Lamina elliptical-oblong or obovate-oblong, simple, 10-45 cm long; generally smooth, sometimes hairy, rounded and obtuse at the base, pointed apex. 

Inflorescence dichasial; primary peduncle very short, often thick and lignified. Flower peduncle 1-4 cm long. Sepals 5, triangular, whitish or reddish in colour. Petals 5, joined at the base into a cuplike structure, whitish-yellow with dark purple bands adaxially; ligules spathulate, yellowish. Stamens 5, fertile, alternating with 5 staminodes, the 2 whorls uniting to form a tube. Anthers 2, stamens fused. Ovary superior with a single style terminating in 5 sticky stigmatic surfaces.

Fruit variable in shape, ovoid, oblong; sometimes pointed and constricted at the base or almost spherical, with 10 furrows of which 5 are prominent. Axial placentation, seeds embedded in mucilage, flat or round with white or purple cotyledons.

The generic name comes from the Greek ‘theos’ (god), and ‘broma’ (food) and means the ‘food of the gods’.


In its natural habitat, T. cacao is an understorey plant of forest in the wet humid tropics.

Native range
Brazil, Mexico, United States of America

Tree management

Weeding and temporary shade are essential within the 1st 3-4 years of establishment before the canopy closes. Plantain appears to meet most of cocoa’s requirements in this respect, whereas bananas compete heavily for moisture during the dry season. The young trees should be mulched before the onset of the 1st dry season to conserve soil moisture. Light pruning is recommended to remove low-hanging, broken and dead branches, as well as for the regeneration of fallen or damaged trees. Farmers plant cocoa at high densities of 3000-4000 trees/ha because the resulting tall trees develop fewer lateral branches and more vertical suckers. This encourages flowering on the main stem at the expense of branches, particularly suitable for some lower Amazon Forastero varieties.

Seed storage behaviour is recalcitrant. Storage temperature between 4 and 15 deg. C is damaging to seed viability and germination. Optimum storage temperature appears to be 17 deg. C. Seeds tolerate desiccation to 25% mc when dried at 20 deg. C, while only about 40-60% survive when dried at 10 deg. C; seeds stored in pods at 5 or 10 deg. C are killed within 2 days, and there is 100% survival when stored in pods at temperatures of 15-30 deg. C for 3 weeks. Viability is reduced from 92% to 18% on desiccation from 45% to 36.7% mc; no seeds survive desiccation to 26% mc; 24% germination after 8 months subimbibed storage (41-42% mc) at 98% rh and 20 deg. C with Thiram fungicide. Similarly, no seeds survive desiccation to below 20% mc, and no fresh seeds survive in storage at 4 deg. C or 15 deg. C.

In its natural habitat, T. cacao is an understorey plant of forest in the wet humid tropics.

Cocoa seeds readily germinate when sown and do not pass through a dormancy period. They lose viability within 5-7 days of extraction from the pod unless specially treated, and germinate within 7-10 days. The plant can easily be propagated vegetatively by leaf-bud cutting, multiple-bud cutting, marcotting, budding, grafting and layering.

 The cocoa bean, with up to 50% fat, is a valuable source of vegetable fat, cocoa butter. The residual cocoa powder is used in cakes, biscuits, drinking chocolate and other confectioneries.

Fodder: The cocoa-pod husk has a low alkaloid content, while tannin is practically absent. The crude fibre content is low; it is completely unlignified and compares favourably with Panicum maximum and Centrosema pubescens. 

The cocoa bean testa has a calorific value of 16 000-19 000 BTU/kg, a little higher than that for wood.

Lipids: The ash from pod husks contains potassium oxide, which can be extracted in the form of potassium hydroxide, a useful alkaline in the saponification process. Cocoa-bean fat from unfermented cocoa beans can be extracted and used in soap making. 

Medicine: The rural people in Amazonas State, Brazil, rub cocoa butter on bruises.

Soil improver: There is considerable nutrient cycling through the development of a deep leaf litter under the cocoa canopy.

Intercropping: Cocoa has traditionally been established in thinned forest following logging and 1-3 years of food-crop production before the canopy closes. Crops such as maize, cocoyam, yams and plantain are commonly intercropped with cocoa in Ecuador, Jamaica and West Africa.

Alcohol: The cocoa-pod husk can be hydrolysed under pressure for fermentation into alcoholic drinks.