Cocoa and Chocolate



O tree, upraised in far-off Mexico!
"Ode to the Chocolate Tree," 1664.

How seldom do we think, when we drink a cup of cocoa or eat some morsels of chocolate, that our liking for these delicacies has set minds and bodies at work all the world over! Many types of humanity have contributed to their production. Picture in the mind's eye the graceful coolie in the sun-saturated tropics, moving in the shade, cutting the pods from the cacao tree; the deep-chested sailor helping to load from lighters or surf-boats the precious bags of cacao into the hold of the ocean liner; the skilful workman roasting the beans until they fill the room with a fine aroma; and the girl with dexterous fingers packing the cocoa or fashioning the chocolate in curious, and delicate forms. To the black and brown races, the negroes and the East Indians, we owe a debt for their work on tropical plantations, for the harder manual work would be too arduous for Europeans unused to the heat of those regions.

Climate Necessary.

Cacao can only grow at tropical temperatures, and when shielded from the wind and unimpaired by drought. Enthusiasts, as a hobby, have grown the tree under glass in England; it requires a warmer temperature than either tea or coffee, and only after infinite care can one succeed in getting the tree to flower and bear fruit. The mean temperature in the countries in which it thrives is about 80 degrees F. in the shade, and the average of the maximum temperatures is seldom more than 90 degrees F., or the average of the minimum temperatures less than 70 degrees F. The rainfall can be as low as 45 inches per annum, as in the Gold Coast, or as high as 150 inches, as in Java, provided the fall is uniformly distributed. The ideal spot is the secluded vale, and whilst in Venezuela there are plantations up to 2000 feet above sea level, cacao cannot generally be profitably cultivated above 1000 feet.

Factors of Geographical Distribution.

Climate, soil, and manures determine the possible region of cultivation—the extent to which the area is utilised depends on the enterprise of man. The original home of cacao was the rich tropical region, far-famed in Elizabethan days, that lies between the Amazon and the Orinoco, and but for the enterprise of man it is doubtful if it would have ever spread from this region. Monkeys often carry the beans many miles—man, the master-monkey, has carried them round the world. First the Indians spread cacao over the tropical belt of the American continent and cultivated it as far North as Mexico. Then came the Spanish explorers of the New World, who carried it from the mainland to the adjacent West Indian islands. Cacao was planted by them in Trinidad as early as 1525. Since that date it has been successfully introduced into many a tropical island. It was an important day in the history of Ceylon when Sir R. Horton, in 1834, had cacao plants brought to that island from Trinidad. The carefully packed plants survived the ordeal of a voyage of ten thousand miles. The most recent introduction is, however, the most striking. About 1880 a native of the Gold Coast obtained some beans, probably from Fernando Po. In 1891, the first bag of cacao was exported; it weighed 80 pounds. In 1915, 24 years later, the export from the Gold Coast was 120 million pounds.


The Cacao Tree.


Tropical vegetation appears so bizarre to the visitor from temperate climes that in such surroundings the cacao tree seems almost commonplace. It is in appearance as moderate and unpretentious as an apple tree, though somewhat taller, being, when full grown, about twenty feet high. It begins to bear in its fourth or fifth year. Smooth in its early youth, as it gets older it becomes covered with little bosses (cushions) from which many flowers spring. I saw one fellow, very tall and gnarled, and with many pods on it; turning to the planter I enquired "How old is that tree?" He replied, almost reverentially: "It's a good deal older than I am; must be at least fifty years old." "It's one of the tallest cacao trees I've seen. I wonder—." The planter perceived my thought, and said: "I'll have it measured for you." It was forty feet high. That was a tall one; usually they are not more than half that height. The bark is reddish-grey, and may be partly hidden by brown, grey and green patches of lichen. The bark is both beautiful and quaint, but in the main the tree owes its beauty to its luxuriance of prosperous leaves, and its quaintness to its pods.

(Reproduced from van Hall's Cocoa, by permisson of Messrs. Macmillan & Co.).

The Flowers, Leaves and Fruit.

Although cacao trees are not unlike the fruit trees of England, there are differences which, when first one sees them, cause expressions of surprise and pleasure to leap to the lips. One sees what one never saw before, the fruit springing from the main trunk, quite close to the ground. An old writer has explained that this is due to a wise providence, because the pod is so heavy that if it hung from the end of the branches it would fall off before it reached maturity. The old writer talks of providence; a modern writer would see in the same facts a simple example of evolution. On the same cacao tree every day of the year may be found flowers, young podkins and mature pods side by side. I say "found" advisedly—at the first glance one does not see the flowers because they are so dainty and so small. The buds are the size of rice grains, and the flowers are not more than half an inch across when the petals are fully out. The flowers are pink or yellow, of wax-like appearance, and have no odour. They were commonly stated to be pollinated by thrips and other insects. Dr. von Faber of Java has recently shown that whilst self-pollination is the rule, cross fertilisation occurs between the flowers on adjacent or interlocking trees. These graceful flowers are so small that one can walk through a plantation without observing them, although an average tree will produce six thousand blossoms in a year. Not more than one per cent. of these will become fruit. Usually it takes six months for the bud to develop into the mature fruit. The lovely mosses that grow on the stems and branches are sometimes so thick that they have to be destroyed, or the fragile cacao flower could not push its way through. Whilst the flowers are small, the leaves are large, being as an average about a foot in length and four inches in breadth. The cacao tree never appears naked, save on the rare occasions when it is stripped by the wind, and the leaves are green all the year round, save when they are red, if the reader will pardon an Hibernianism. And indeed there is something contrary in the crimson tint, for whilst we usually associate this with old leaves about to fall, with the cacao, as with some rose trees, it is the tint of the young leaves.


The Cacao Pod.


The fruit, which hangs on a short thick stalk, may be anything in shape from a melon to a stumpy, irregular cucumber, according to the botanic variety. The intermediate shape is like a lemon, with furrows from end to end. There are pods, called Calabacillo, smooth and ovate like a calabash, and there are others, more rare, so "nobbly" that they are well-named "Alligator." The pods vary in length from five to eleven inches, "with here and there the great pod of all, the blood-red sangre-tora." The colours of the pods are as brilliant as they are various. They are rich and strong, and resemble those of the rind of the pomegranate. One pod shows many shades of dull crimson, another grades from gold to the yellow of leather, and yet another is all lack-lustre pea-green. They may be likened to Chinese lanterns hanging in the woods. One does not conclude from the appearance of the pod that the contents are edible, any more than one would surmise that tea-leaves could be used to produce a refreshing drink. I say as much to the planter, who smiles. With one deft cut with his machete or cutlass, which hangs in a leather scabbard by his side, the planter severs the pod from the tree, and with another slash cuts the thick, almost woody rind and breaks open the pod. There is disclosed a mass of some thirty or forty beans, covered with juicy pulp. The inside of the rind and the mass of beans are gleaming white, like melting snow. Sometimes the mass is pale amethyst in colour. I perceive a pleasant odour resembling melon. Like little Jack Horner, I put in my thumb and pull out a snow-white bean. It is slippery to hold, so I put it in my mouth. The taste is sweet, something between grape and melon. Inside this fruity coating is the bean proper. From different pods we take beans and cut them in two, and find that the colour of the bean varies from purple almost to white.


Botanical Description.

Theobroma Cacao belongs to the family of the Sterculiaceae, and to the same order as the Limes and Mallows. It is described in Strasburger's admirable Text-Book of Botany as follows:

"Family. Sterculiaceae.

IMPORTANT GENERA. The most important plant is the Cocoa Tree (Theobroma Cacao). It is a low tree with short-stalked, firm, brittle, simple leaves of large size, oval shape, and dark green colour. The young leaves are of a bright red colour, and, as in many tropical trees, hang limply downwards. The flowers are borne on the main stem or the older branches, and arise from dormant axillary buds (Cauliflory). Each petal is bulged up at the base, narrows considerably above this, and ends in an expanded tip. The form of the reddish flowers is thus somewhat urn-shaped with five radiating points. The pentalocular ovary has numerous ovules in each loculus. As the fruit develops, the soft tissue of the septa extends between the single seeds; the ripe fruit is thus unilocular and many-seeded. The seed-coat is filled by the embryo, which has two large, folded, brittle cotyledons."

The last sentence conveys an erroneous impression. The two cotyledons, which form the seed, are not brittle when found in nature in the pod. They are juicy and fleshy. And it is only after the seed has received special treatment (fermentation and drying) to obtain the bean of commerce, that it becomes brittle.

Varieties of Theobroma Cacao.

As mentioned above, the pods and seeds of Theobroma Cacao trees show a marked variation, and in every country the botanist has studied these variations and classified the trees according to the shape and colour of the pods and seeds. The existence of so many classifications has led to a good deal of confusion, and we are indebted to Van Hall for the simplest way of clearing up these difficulties. He accepts the classification first given by Morris, dividing the trees into two varieties—Criollo and Forastero:

DRAWINGS OF TYPICAL PODS, illustrating varieties.

Extremes of Characteristics.


(Old Red, Caracas, etc.)

Grading from Cundeamor
   bottle-necked) to Calabacillo

Pod walls.Thin and warty.
Beans.Large and plump.

Thick and woody.
Small and flat.
Heliotrope to purple.

The cacao of the criollo variety has pods the walls of which are thin and warty, with ten distinct furrows. The seeds or beans are white as ivory throughout, round and plump, and sweet to taste. The forastero variety includes many sub-varieties, the kind most distinct from the criollo having pods, the walls of which are thick and woody, the surface smooth, the furrows indistinct, and the shape globular. The seeds in these pods are purple in colour, flat in appearance, and bitter to taste. This is a very convenient classification. Personally I believe it would be possible to find pods varying by almost imperceptible gradations from the finest, purest, criollo to the lowest form of forastero (namely, calabacillo). The criollo yields the finest and rarest kind of cacao, but as sometimes happens with refined types in nature, it is a rather delicate tree, especially liable to canker and bark diseases, and this accounts for the predominance of the forastero in the cacao plantations of the world.

The Cacao Plantation.

One can spend happy days on a cacao estate. "Are you going into the cocoa?" they ask, just as in England we might enquire, "Are you going into the corn?"

TROPICAL FOREST, TRINIDAD. This has to be cleared before planting begins.

Coconut plantations and sugar estates make a strong appeal to the imagination, but for peaceful beauty they cannot compare with the cacao plantation. True, coconut plantations are very lovely—the palms are so graceful, the leaves against the sky so like a fine etching—but "the slender coco's drooping crown of plumes" is altogether foreign to English eyes. Sugar estates are generally marred by the prosaic factory in the background. They are dead level plains, and the giant grass affords no shade from the relentless sun. Whereas the leaves of the cacao tree are large and numerous, so that even in the heat of the day, it is comparatively cool and pleasant under the cacao.

Cacao plantations present in different countries every variety of appearance—from that of a wild forest in which the greater portion of the trees are cacao, to the tidy and orderly plantation. In some of the Trinidad plantations the trees are planted in parallel lines twelve feet apart, with a tree every twelve feet along the line; and as you push your way through the plantation the apparently irregularly scattered trees are seen to flash momentarily into long lines. In other parts of the world, for example, in Grenada and Surinam, the ground may be kept so tidy and free from weeds that they have the appearance of gardens.

Clearing the Land.

When the planter has chosen a suitable site, an exercise requiring skill, the forest has to be cleared. The felling of great trees and the clearing of the wild tangle of undergrowth is arduous work. It is well to leave the trees on the ridges for about sixty feet on either side, and thus form a belt of trees to act as wind screen. Cacao trees are as sensitive to a draught as some human beings, and these "wind breaks" are often deliberately grown—Balata, Poui, Mango (Trinidad), Galba (Grenada), Wild Pois Doux (Martinique), and other leafy trees being suitable for this purpose.

Suitable Soil.

It was for many years believed that if a tree were analysed the best soil for its growth could at once be inferred and described, as it was assumed that the best soil would be one containing the same elements in similar proportions. This simple theory ignored the characteristic powers of assimilation of the tree in question and the "digestibility" of the soil constituents. However, it is agreed that soils rich in potash and lime (e.g., those obtained by the decomposition of certain volcanic rocks) are good for cacao. An open sandy or loamy alluvial soil is considered ideal. The physical condition of the soil is equally important: heavy clays or water-logged soils are bad. The depth of soil required depends on its nature. A stiff soil discourages the growth of the "tap" root, which in good porous soils is generally seven or eight feet long.

Note the long tap root.
(Reproduced from the Imperial Institute series of Handbooks to the Commercial Resources of the Tropics, by permission.)


The greater part of the world's cacao is produced without the use of artificial manures. The soil, which is continually washed down by the rains into the rivers, is continually renewed by decomposition of the bed rock, and in the tropics this decomposition is more rapid than in temperate climes. In Guayaquil, "notwithstanding the fact that the same soil has been cropped consecutively for over a hundred years, there is as yet no sign of decadence, nor does a necessity yet arise for artificial manure."[1] However, manures are useful with all soils, and necessary with many. Happy is the planter who is so placed that he can obtain a plentiful supply of farmyard or pen manure, as this gives excellent results. "Mulching" is also recommended. This consists of covering the ground with decaying leaves, grasses, etc., which keep the soil in a moist and open condition during the dry season. If artificial manures are used they should vary according to the soil, and, although he can obtain considerable help from the analyst, the planter's most reliable guide will be experiment on the spot.


(Reproduced from van Hall's Cocoa, by permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co.).

In the past insufficient care has been taken in the selection of seed. The planter should choose the large plump beans with a pale interior, or he should choose the nearest kind to this that is sufficiently hardy to thrive in the particular environment. He can plant (1) direct from seeds, or (2) from seedlings—plants raised in nurseries in bamboo pots, or (3) by grafting or budding. It is usual to plant two or three seeds in each hole, and destroy the weaker plants when about a foot high. The seeds are planted from twelve to fifteen feet apart. The distance chosen depends chiefly on the richness of the soil; the richer the soil, the more ample room is allowed for the trees to spread without choking each other. Interesting results have been obtained by Hart and others by grafting the fine but tender criollo on to the hardy forastero, but until yesterday the practice had not been tried on a large scale. Experiments were begun in 1913 by Mr. W.G. Freeman in Trinidad which promise interesting results. By 1919 the Department of Agriculture had seven acres in grafted and budded cacao. In a few years it should be possible to say whether it pays to form an estate of budded cacao in preference to using seedlings.


There are no longer any mystic rites performed before planting. In the old days it was the custom to solemnize the planting, for example, by sacrificing a cacao-coloured dog (see Bancroft's Native Races of the Pacific States.)


Shade: Temporary and Permanent.

When the seeds are planted, such small plants as cassava, chillies, pigeon peas and the like are planted with them. The object of planting these is to afford the young cacao plant shelter from the sun, and to keep the ground in good condition. Incidentally the planter obtains cassava (which gives tapioca), red peppers, etc., as a "catch crop" whilst he is waiting for the cacao tree to begin to yield. Bananas and plantains are planted with the same object, and these are allowed to remain for a longer period. Such is the rapidity of plant growth in the tropics that in three or four years the cacao tree is taller than a man, and begins to bear fruit in its fourth or fifth year. Now it is agreed that, as with men, the cacao tree needs protection in its youth, but whether it needs shade trees when it is fully grown is one of the controverted questions. When the planter is sitting after his day's work is done, and no fresh topic comes to his mind, he often re-opens the discussion on the question of shade. The idea that cacao trees need shade is a very ancient one, as is shown in a very old drawing (possibly the oldest drawing of cacao extant) beneath which it is written: "Of the tree which bears cacao, which is money, and how the Indians obtained fire with two pieces of wood." In this drawing you will observe how lovingly the shade tree shelters the cacao. The intention in using shade is to imitate the natural forest conditions in which the wild cacao grew. Sometimes when clearing the forest certain large trees are left standing, but more frequently and with better judgment, chosen kinds are planted.

(From Bontekoe's Works.)

CACAO TREES, SHADED BY KAPOK (Eriodendron Anfractuosum) IN JAVA.
(reproduced from van Hall's Cocoa, by permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co.)

Many trees have been used: the saman, bread fruit, mango, mammet, sand box, pois doux, rubber, etc. In the illustration showing kapok acting as a parasol for cacao in Java, we see that the proportion of shade trees to cacao is high. Leguminous trees are preferred because they conserve the nitrogen in the soil. Hence in Trinidad the favourite shade tree is Erythrina or Bois Immortel (so called, a humourist suggests, because it is short-lived). It is also rather prettily named, "Mother of Cacao." Usually the shade trees are planted about 40 feet apart, but there are cacao plantations which might cause a stranger to enquire, "Is this an Immortel plantation?" so closely are these conspicuous trees planted. When looking down a Trinidad valley, richly planted with cacao, one sees in every direction the silver-grey trunks of the Immortel. In the early months of the year these trees have no leaves, they are a mass of flame-coloured flowers, each "shafted like a scimitar." It well repays the labour of climbing a hill to look down on this vermilion glory. Some Trinidad planters believe that their trees would die without shade, yet in Grenada, only a hundred miles North as the steamer sails, there are whole plantations without a single shade tree. The Grenadians say: "You cannot have pods without flowers, and you cannot have good flowering without light and air." Shade trees are not used on some estates in San Thomé, and in Brazil there are cocoa kings with 200,000 trees without one shade tree. It should be mentioned, however, that in these countries the cacao trees are planted more closely (about eight feet apart) and themselves shade the soil. Professor Carmody, in reporting[2] recently on the result of a four years' experiment with (1) shade, (2) no shade, (3) partial shade, says that so far partial shade has given the best results. No general solution has yet been found to the question of the advantage of shade, and, as Shaw states for morality, so in agriculture, "the golden rule is that there is no golden rule." Not only is there the personal factor, but nature provides an infinite variety of environments, and the best results are obtained by the use of methods appropriate to the local conditions.


Form of Tree-growth Desired: Suckers.

Viscount Mountmorres, in a delightfully clear exposition of cacao cultivation which he gave to the native farmers and chiefs of the Gold Coast in 1906, said: "In pruning, it is necessary always to bear in mind that the best shape for cacao trees is that of an enlarged open umbrella," with a height under the umbrella not exceeding seven feet. With this ideal in his mind, the planter should train up the tree in the way it should go. Viscount Mountmorres also said that everything that grows upwards, except the main stem, must be cut off.

This opens a question which is of great interest to planters as to whether it is wise to allow shoots to grow out from the main trunk near the ground. Some hold that the high yield on their plantation is due to letting these upright shoots grow. "Mi Amigo Corsicano said: 'Diavolo, let the cacao-trees grow, let them branch off like any other fruit-tree, say the tamarind, the 'chupon' or sucker will in time bear more than its mother.'"[3] There seems to be some evidence that old trees profit from the "chupons" because they continue to bear when the old trunk is weary, but this is compensated for by the fact that the "chupons" (Portuguese for suckers) were grown at the expense of the tree in its youth. Hence other planters call them "thieves," and "gormandizers," saying that they suck the sap from the tree, turning all to wood. They follow the advice given as early as 1730 by the author of The Natural History of Chocolate, when he says: "Cut or lop off the suckers." In Trinidad, experiments have been started, and after a five years' test, Professor Carmody says that the indications are that it is a matter of indifference whether "chupons" are allowed to grow or not.


After hunting, agriculture is man's oldest industry, and improvements come but slowly, for the proving of a theory often requires work on a huge scale carried out for several decades. The husbandry of the earth goes on from century to century with little change, and the methods followed are the winnowings of experience, tempered with indolence. And even with the bewildering progress of science in other directions, sound improvements in this field are rare discoveries. There is great scope for the application of physical and chemical knowledge to the production of the raw materials of the tropics. In one or two instances notable advances have been made, thus the direct production of a white sugar (as now practised at Java) at the tropical factory will have far-reaching effects, but with many tropical products the methods practised are as ancient as they are haphazard. Like all methods founded on long experience, they suit the environment and the temperament of the people who use them, so that the work of the scientist in introducing improvements requires intimate knowledge of the conditions if his suggestions are to be adopted. The various Departments of Agriculture are doing splendid pioneer work, but the full harvest of their sowing will not be reaped until the number of tropically-educated agriculturists has been increased by the founding of three or four agricultural colleges and research laboratories in equatorial regions.

There is much research to be done. As yet, however, many planters are ignorant of all that is already established, the facilities for education in tropical agriculture being few and far between. There are signs, however, of development in this direction. It is pleasant to note that a start was made in Ceylon at the end of 1917 by opening an agricultural school at Peradenija. Trinidad has for a number of years had an agricultural school, and is eager to have a college devoted to agriculture. In 1919, Messrs. Cadbury Bros. gave £5000 to form the nucleus of a special educational fund for the Gold Coast. The scientists attached to the several government agricultural departments in Java, Ceylon, Trinidad, the Philippines, Africa, etc., have done splendid work, but it is desirable that the number of workers should be increased. When the world wakes up to the importance of tropical produce, agricultural colleges will be scattered about the tropics, so that every would-be planter can learn his subject on the spot.


Diseases of the Cacao Tree.

Take, for example, the case of the diseases of plants. Everyone who takes an interest in the garden knows how destructive the insect pests and vegetable parasites can be. In the tropics their power for destruction is very great, and they are a constant menace to economic products like cacao. The importance of understanding their habits, and of studying methods of keeping them in check, is readily appreciated; the planter may be ruined by lacking this knowledge.

The cacao tree has been improved and "domesticated" to satisfy human requirements, a process which has rendered it weaker to resist attacks from pests and parasites. It is usual to classify man amongst the pests, as either from ignorance or by careless handling he can do the tree much harm. Other animal pests are the wanton thieves: monkeys, squirrels and rats, who destroy more fruit than they consume. The insect pests include varieties of beetles, thrips, aphides, scale insects and ants, whilst fungi are the cause of the "Canker" in the stem and branches, the "Witch-broom" disease in twigs and leaves, and the "Black Rot" of pods.

The subject is too immense to be summarised in a few lines, and I recommend readers who wish to know more of this or other division of the science of cacao cultivation, to consult one or more of the four classics in English on this subject:

  • Cocoa, by Herbert Wright (Ceylon), 1907.
  • Cacao, by J. Hinchley Hart (Trinidad), 1911.
  • Cocoa, by W.H. Johnson (Nigeria), 1912.
  • Cocoa, by C.J.J. van Hall (Java), 1914.
[1] Bulletin, Botanic Dept., Jamaica, February, 1900.
[2] Bulletin Dept. of Agriculture, Trinidad, 1916.
[3] "How José formed his Cocoa Estate."

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