World Cocoa and Chocolate Day takes place every year on October 1st and it’s the perfect time to consider whether you might want to grow your own cacao tree at home! Source: www.mytrinilime.com
Can you make chocolate from a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) you grow at home? Probably not, at least, unless you live in a humid tropical climate (the West Indies, the Congo Basin or any steamy jungle). Can you at least keep a cacao tree alive at home as an indoor plant? That’s not so easy either, but it is possible. You see, the cacao tree is a very capricious plant. I know: I’ve tried it! And it can also be difficult to find. But you can at least try.
Did you know that Theobroma means “food of the gods?”
The cacao tree is a small tree with long, entire, pointed, paper-thin leaves. It produces small clumps of small white or pinkish flowers directly on the trunk or a major branch rather than on new growth as do most plants, a phenomenon called cauliflory . It’s a reasonably attractive plant, with reddish new leaves and dark green mature ones … at least when its leaves aren’t brown around the edges, which is unfortunately often the case.
Note you’ll need a lot of space for this plant. It’s not a little potted plant you can keep on a windowsill. After 7 or 8 years, and even with a bit of pruning, expect it to be at least 7 feet (2 m) tall and 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter. It really has to be about that size to produce a reasonable quantity of pods (fruits).
Finding a Plant
Of course, if you want to grow a cacao tree, first you have to find one. I’ve never seen one in local garden centers in my area. However, you can find them quite readily on the Internet. Beware, though, of fly-by-night suppliers: ones you’ve never heard of before and who offer nothing other than cacao trees. Such enterprises tend to disappear without warning, possibly without sending you the merchandise either.
Note, though, that while you can order cacao plants at any season, they can only be shipped when temperatures are mild.
You can also grow cacao trees from seeds (their seeds are called “beans,” even though the cacao tree is not a legume). Again, you can find them online and seeds are certainly cheaper than plants. Plus, since seeds can travel from one country to another without an import permit or government inspection, you can order them from abroad (unless you live in a country, like Australia, where importing seeds can be very complicated).
However, the beans have to be freshly harvested. If you’re offered dried or stored seeds, say no! Cacao beans usually have a viability of no more than 3 weeks… and even at 3 weeks, their viability will be seriously reduced. So, you’ll be looking for a supplier who will harvest the seeds specifically for you just before they mail them. Pay whatever extra they charge so they ship the seeds by the fastest means possible!
I actually grew my own cacao trees from a fruit I harvested fresh from a cacao tree in Costa Rica. I sucked off the delicious outer white flesh that covers each seed and stuffed the seeds into a plastic bag for the trip home.
Maybe you live in an area where you can get fresh cacao pods? If so, that would be an excellent source of beans!
Sowing a Cacao Tree
If you’re starting seeds fresh from the pod, do as I did, suck off or otherwise remove the fleshy part, then remove the bean’s outer envelope as well, revealing the bean itself. Sow it immediately.
Moisten the mix (any houseplant mix will do) well first. You can then sow the seeds deeply or shallowly: both methods seem to work.
The beans will need “greenhouse conditions” (warmth and humidity) to germinate, so cover the container with a clear plastic dome or set it inside a clear plastic bag, then place the seed container in a very warm spot (over 80° F/26°C). You may need a heating mat to reach that high a temperature. In my case, four of the six beans sowed germinated, the first after only four days, while the slowest took nine days. The bean rises above the soil, then splits open to reveal a short stem and the first leaves.
After germination, you can reduce the temperature, but still, it should remain above 20°C. And you’ll have to maintain high humidity, at least 70%, so you may want to leave your seedlings under cover, at least until they hit the top of their container.
Keeping Your Cacao Tree Alive
At this point, both homegrown seedlings and purchased plants will likely be at the “young plant” stage and will need the same care.
Cacao trees are understory plants native to the tropical rainforests (i.e. jungles) of South and Central America. Indoors, you have to give them similar conditions.
As understory plants, they grow in shade … but conditions indoors are naturally much, much darker than outdoors, especially during the winter months, so they will need some direct sunlight in your home. A spot that receives morning sun would be ideal, but avoid the drying sun of midday. Water as needed to keep the potting soil slightly moist at all times, but don’t let the pot soak in water for long periods. Fertilize moderately (at a quarter of the recommended dose) during spring and summer, but not fall and winter, at least, not if you don’t live in a tropical climate. Cacao trees grow year-round in the tropics, but growth will slow down to a crawl indoors over the winter in temperate regions.
Can you grow a cacao tree under lights (fluorescent or LED)? Yes, and you can certainly start them there, but it will be hard to light them correctly as they grow, as the lower leaves will be farther from the light and shaded by the leaves above. You may need to prune them selectively so they grow sideways rather than upward.
And you’ll need to repot quite regularly. You’d be surprised at how quickly the plants grow. Keep moving them into larger and larger pots as needed. Hint: if the soil dries out within days even after a good soaking, the roots need more space.
Humidity, or the lack of it, is going to be your main concern. I struggled with my plants every fall and winter: their lower leaves dried up, starting at the edges, then working their way towards the center. I grew them in my greenhouse (already much more humid than the average house) and that was not enough. I tried adding a room humidifier, to no avail. As a last resort, I moved the last one (the dry air killed off the others) into a big plastic bag for the off-season. Yes, it spent 6 months a year sealed inside a plastic bag and loved every minute of it! Had I known that from the start, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
Cacao trees do love a summer outdoors in a semi-shady spot. That seems to be where they put on the most and healthiest growth. But put them out late and bring them in early: 50°F (15°C) slows their growth to almost nothing and 45°F (7°C) can kill them, or so I’m told. (I read that somewhere and followed the tip, but you can understand why I never actually put that one to the test!)
The Sad End of My Cacao Tree
After about 4 years, my last cacao tree was thriving and I was looking forward to perhaps seeing at least some flowers. It was, by then, a fair-sized shrub, about 4 feet (1.2 m) tall with several branches and yes, I had pruned it back occasionally to keep it within bounds.
It finally succumbed to drought while I was away. The person who was supposed to water it hadn’t, or perhaps not enough. That happens: I don’t cry over dead plants. In fact, I barely even blink. Gardening life goes on.
Flowers and fruits?
Normally, cacao trees grown as houseplants begin to bloom at around 5 years old and will be about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at that point and of a fairly good diameter. If conditions are decent, yes, you should see flowers.
Yes, but will you see fruit? Unfortunately, that’s not so sure. Many cacao trees won’t set fruit without cross-pollination and you won’t necessarily have two plants in bloom at the same time. Plus you’d have to pollinate manually. And to complicate things, each flower is only open one day and, even then, only for a few hours. Of course, there are self-fertile cacao trees, but if you grow your plant from seed, it will be a luck-of-the-draw type situation. If you’ve hit upon one of those, your chances of growing fruit increase immensely!
If a flower is pollinated, the fruit (called a pod), first small and green, will grow to quite a size, 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm) in length. It will take about 6 months to ripen fully. At that point, the pod will change color to yellow, red, paler green, and other shades, according to the genetics of the plant, indicating that it’s time to harvest. Then you can finally look into producing a (very) small amount of chocolate.
Of course, very few cacao trees grown in a typical home survive long enough to flower, let along produce fruit. I warned you from the start of this article: the cacao tree is a very capricious plant indeed!
Visit a Botanical Garden Near You
If you want to see a cacao tree in bloom and possibly fruit and you don’t live in an equatorial rainforest, you should take a tour of your local botanical garden. Many grow cacao trees and indeed, a wide range of tropical fruits, all to impress those of us from cooler climes. Even so, not every botanical garden manages to get this capricious plant produce fruit. For those that do, congratulations! And thank you for sharing your success with the public!