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Theobroma cacao - L.

Common Name Cacao, Cocoa Tree
Family Malvaceae
USDA hardiness 10-12
Known Hazards Chocolate can cause allergies and migraine in some people[238 ].
Habitats An understorey plant of evergreen rainforest in the wet humid tropics, growing in places that are not usually seasonally inundated[303 , 636 ].
Range S. America - Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Guyanas; C. America - Belize, Guatemala, southern Mexico.
Edibility Rating    (5 of 5)
Other Uses    (3 of 5)
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating    (3 of 5)
Care (info)
Tender Moist Soil Full shade Semi-shade Full sun
Theobroma cacao Cacao, Cocoa Tree

Theobroma cacao Cacao, Cocoa Tree


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Theobroma cacao or Cacao is a small, evergreen tree about 8 m in height and 30 cm in trunk diameter. It is native to Central and South America. The leaves are large, simple, and alternate, about 40 cm long and 5-20 cm broad. The flowers, small with pink calyx, occur in clusters on the trunk and older branches. It is pollinated by small flies. Fruits are ovoid, yellow to orange pods containing 20 to 60 seeds each. There are three main types of cacao: Criollio Cacaos, which originated from Central America, red-skinned, highest grade but low-yielding; Trinitario Cacaos, from Trinidad and high grade; and Forastero Cacaos, from the Amazon Basin. The seeds, known as cacao beans, are widely used to make chocolates. It is dried, fermented, and roasted to yield cocoa chocolate and cocoa butter. The fruit pulp can be eaten raw or made into juices and jealous. Although mainly cultivated for food use, cacao also has medicinal uses. It is used to stimulate the nervous system, lower blood pressure, dilates the coronary arteries, and soothes and softens damaged skin. It is also used against anemia, angina, bruises, chapped skin and burns, diarrhea, and leprosy spots. Cacao tree also provides other commodities for local use such as fiber for clothing, thread, and paper, wood for construction and implements, etc., and coverings for houses, among many other items.

Physical Characteristics

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Theobroma cacao is an evergreen Tree growing to 8 m (26ft) by 8 m (26ft) at a medium rate.
See above for USDA hardiness. It is hardy to UK zone 10 and is frost tender. The flowers are pollinated by Thrips, Midges, Ants, Aphids. The plant is not self-fertile.
Suitable for: medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: mildly acid and neutral soils and can grow in very acid soils.
It can grow in full shade (deep woodland) semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant is not wind tolerant.

UK Hardiness Map US Hardiness Map


Plant Habitats

Edible Uses

Edible Parts: Oil  Seed
Edible Uses: Chocolate  Colouring  Drink  Oil

The dried, fermented and roasted seeds of this plant, called cacao beans, are the source of cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter[301 ]. These are widely used in the confectionery industry to made chocolate confections, cakes, ice cream, drinks etc[301 ]. The somewhat bitter flavour is usually moderated by adding sugar or other sweeteners[238 ]. The seed contains up to 50% fat[303 ]. The ripe seeds are cured by pressing, fermenting and then drying them[307 ]. The cured seeds are then roasted and ground into a powder to make cocoa[307 ]. A butter-like fat (called cocoa butter) is extracted from the seeds[307 ]. The fruit contains about 20 - 40 seeds surrounded by a thin, succulent pulp with a slightly sweet flavour[416 ]. This pulp is sucked as a sweet snack[301 , 307 ]. It can be made into juices and jellies[416 ]. The seed contains a pigment that is said to be useful as a food colouring[301 ].

References   More on Edible Uses

Medicinal Uses

Plants For A Future can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.
Analgesic  Antibacterial  Antidiarrhoeal  Antirheumatic  Bitter  Diuretic  Emollient  Hypotensive  
Leprosy  Skin  Stimulant  Tonic

Although used mainly as a food, cacao does also have some therapeutic value[254 ]. The seed contains a range of medically active constituents including xanthines, a fixed oil and endorphins[254 ]. It is a bitter, stimulant, diuretic herb that stimulates the nervous system, lowers blood pressure and dilates the coronary arteries[238 , 254 ]. Cacao powder and butter are nutritive, the latter also soothes and softens damaged skin[238 ]. The seed is used in central America and the Caribbean as a heart and kidney tonic[254 ]. An infusion of the baked seed-membranes is drunk as a remedy for anaemia[348 ]. Combined with the stems of Chromolaena odorata and the wood of Cecropia obtusa, the seed is applied externally as an emollient in a remedy to extract splinters or prickles embedded in the skin[348 ]. Cacao powder is taken internally in the treatment of angina and high blood pressure[238 ]. The rural people in Amazonas State, Brazil, rub cocoa butter on bruises[303 ]. It is often used to treat chapped skin and burns[238 ]. Research has shown that it can help to counter the bacteria responsible for boils and septicaemia[254 ]. The leaf contains genistic acid. This has been shown to be antirheumatic and analgesic[348 ]. An infusion of the leaf buds is used with incense to treat diarrhoea[348 ]. An infusion of the dry pods is used to decrease leprosy spots[348 ].

References   More on Medicinal Uses

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Other Uses

Charcoal  Cosmetic  Fibre  Fuel  Oil  Paper  Soap making  String  Wood

Humid shade garden. Botanic collection. Large conservatory. Agroforestry Uses: The tree is often interplanted with bananas, coconuts and rubber[200 ]. Other Uses The cacao tree provides a wide range of commodities for local peoples including fibre for cloth, thread and paper; wood for construction, making implements etc; coverings for their houses and many other items[254 ]. 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[303 ]. The burnt husks can be pounded and made into a paste that has a soapy residue and can be used for washing clothes[307 ]. Cocoa-bean fat from unfermented cocoa beans can be extracted and used in soap making[303 ]. Cacao butter, obtained from the seeds, is used in skin creams, cosmetics and as a suppository base[238 ]. The wood is light, soft and of low durability[419 ]. Of little value, it is sometimes used for fuel or to make charcoal[419 ]. The cocoa bean testa is used for fuel[303 ]. It has a calorific value of 16 000-19 000 BTU/kg, a little higher than that for wood[303 ].

Special Uses

Carbon Farming  Food Forest

References   More on Other Uses

Cultivation details

Global Crop  Management: Standard  Other Systems: Multistrata

A tree of the lowland tropics, usually found below 300 metres but occasionally found as high as 900 metres[303 ]. It succeeds where the mean annual temperature is in the range 18 - 28.5°c with a maximum temperature of 30 - 33.5°c and a minimum 13 - 18°c[303 ]. The absolute minimum is 10°c, below which trees are likely to suffer severe damage[303 ]. Rainfall should be plentiful and well distributed throughout the year[303 ]. An annual rainfall level of between 1,500 - 2,000mm is suitable, though it is reported to tolerate an annual precipitation of 480 - 4,300mm[303 ]. Requires a fertile, moisture-retentive but well-drained soil in sun or part shade in a position sheltered from the wind[200 ]. Prefers an acid soil[307 ]. Prefers a pH in the range 5 - 6.5, tolerating 4 - 8[418 ]. An understorey tree of the forest, it grows best in dappled shade[307 ], but can even produce well in quite dense shade[200 ]. There are three main types of cacao:- Criollo Cacaos originated in Central America. It is red skinned and the highest grade, but is low-yielding[307 ]. Trinitario Cacaos arose in Trinidad. It is high grade[307 ]. Forastero Cacaos comes from the Amazon Basin[307 ]. The insignificant flowers have a faint, sweet fragrance[200 ]. In favourable conditions both flowers and fruit will be borne throughout the year[200 ]. Freshly planted young trees are slow to establish and grow away, rarely growing more than 1.5 metres tall after 2 years[419 ]. Weeding and temporary shade are essential within the first 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[303 ]. There are some named varieties[301 ]. Flowering Time: Blooms all year. Bloom Color: White/Near White Cream/Tan. Spacing: 12-15 ft. (3.6-4.7 m).

Carbon Farming

  • Global Crop  These crops are already grown or traded around the world. The annual value of each is more than $1 billion US Examples include coconuts, almonds, and bananas.
  • Management: Standard  Plants grow to their standard height. Harvest fruit, seeds, or other products. Non-Destructive management systems.
  • Other Systems: Multistrata  Multistrata agroforests feature multiple layers of trees often with herbaceous perennials, annual crops, and livestock.

References   Carbon Farming Information and Carbon Sequestration Information

Temperature Converter

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Plant Propagation

Seed - loses its viability within 5 - 7 days from being separated from the pulp[200 , 303 ]. Sow the seed as soon as it is ripe, in individual containers in a shaded position, covering them with about 5mm of potting compost[419 ]. The seeds readily germinate when sown fresh, and do not pass through a dormancy period. They usually germinate within 7 - 10 days[303 ]. Seedlings grow away slowly[419 ]. Air layering. Leaf-bud cutting. Grafting.

Other Names

If available other names are mentioned here

Cacau-verdaeiro, Cacau, Cacaueiro, Cacautl, Chocolate tree, Kakaw, Koko, Pokok choklat, Prorounahi, cacao, cacao butter, cacao semen, cacao testes, cacao tree, cacaoeiro, cacaotero, cacaoyer, cacau, calabacillo, chocolate, chocolate nut, cocoa, cocoa bean, cocoa beans, cocoa butter, cocoa|kokova/chocolat gas, echter kakaobaum, forastero, gábu, kakao, kakaobaum, kakaopflanze, kakaosamen, kakaoschalen, kakay, kakua, kuk, oleum cacao, theobroma oil, árbol del cacao.

NORTHERN AMERICA: Mexico, Chiapas (south), Tabasco, SOUTHERN AMERICA: Belize, Guatemala, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, Amazonas, Brazil (northwest), Amazonas, Colombia, Peru, Loreto,

Weed Potential

Right plant wrong place. We are currently updating this section. Please note that a plant may be invasive in one area but may not in your area so it’s worth checking.

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status : This taxon has not yet been assessed

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Growth: S = slow M = medium F = fast. Soil: L = light (sandy) M = medium H = heavy (clay). pH: A = acid N = neutral B = basic (alkaline). Shade: F = full shade S = semi-shade N = no shade. Moisture: D = dry M = Moist We = wet Wa = water.


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Botanical References

Links / References

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A special thanks to Ken Fern for some of the information used on this page.

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