Cacao is the tree that makes all chocolate possible. Growing in a tropical belt 20° north and south of the equator all around the world, the fruit produces the beans used to make chocolate. Learn a little more about the mysterious tree that evolved in the Amazon Rainforest and spread around the planet.
Cacao is indigenous to the Upper Amazon Basin, where the Andean Mountain range insulated it from ice ages within a tropical bubble. It was originally used as an indigenous food for the Amazonian communities, as well as an ingredient in medicines and likely fermented drinks.
Through an elaborate indigenous trade system that stretched from South America up through Mesoamerica cacao was traded and propagated across from South American all the way up to southern Mexico.
The cacao tree can grow to 10-15m in the wild Amazonian jungle, but is typically kept to around 3m on a farm in order to maintain its productivity and the accessibility of its fruits.
The trees like a hot and humid environment with a healthy amount of rainfall.
Unlike most other trees and plants, the flowers grow directly from the trunk as well as from the branches. They are pollinated by tiny flies called "midges," but have also been known to be pollinated by other small insects.
Once the flowers are pollinated, a cacao pod begins to form, growing for roughly 4-5 months until they can be harvested. The pods have a thick outer husk that protects the sweet pulp and beans inside.
All chocolate around the world is made with the beans of the cacao fruit. The beans are encased in a sweet pulp within the pod which tastes similar to a citrus-y lychee fruit.
Once harvested, the beans are fermented and dried and then shipped to chocolate makers where they will be turned into chocolate or used locally for various products such as drinking chocolates, juice, and as a fruit.