Join us as we harvest a cacao pod from one of our three cacao trees in the Hartley and Heather Richardson Tropical Biome!

The scientific name of the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao. Theobroma means food of Gods, and cacao comes from the word “cacahuatl” in the Aztec language which comes originally from the Mayan words “Kaj” and “Kab” meaning bitter juice.

Cacao trees have been an important cultural crop for 7000 to 8000 years and were grown by various Mesoamerican societies. The Aztecs even used cacao as a form of currency and mandated that individuals living in conquered territories where cacao could be cultivated pay their taxes with cacao pods.

The cacao tree continues to hold great significance today, as it is widely used in commercial and pharmaceutical industries. Researchers have studied the active components of cacao beans, including Theobromine, the primary bitter-tasting alkaloid found in cocoa and chocolate. This compound is known to enhance our mood and alertness, which may explain our love for chocolate. Additionally, cacao beans are rich in antioxidants, with raw cacao offering the most health benefits, unlike your beloved chocolate bar.

Cacao tree

Harvesting the cacao pod from the tree

Harvesting of the cacao pods is a labour-intensive process. The tree produces flowers all year round, meaning the fruits are all at different stages of maturity throughout the year, so you cannot harvest cacao pods all at once.

The pod is ready for harvest when it changes colour, for our variety the pod begins dark brown and then turns into a golden orange-yellow colour. When harvesting we need to be very careful because the flowers grow on special areas on the tree bark. If this tissue is damaged the tree will lose the ability to produce flowers in this area in the future.

Cacao flowers growing on the trunk

Cacao pod with beans and pulp

The pod is cut down from the cacao tree and opened. Inside you can see the white pulp surrounding the seeds, usually called beans. The beans are very bitter and must be fermented to develop the flavour we recognize as chocolate.

Although each farm may have its own unique approach to harvesting and processing cocoa beans, the general process involves fermentation and drying before sending the beans to chocolate makers for roasting. The beans are stripped of their shells to produce cacao nibs, which are then ground into cocoa mass. This mass can be further refined to create cocoa powder and cocoa butter. For dark chocolate, only cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar are used. When milk is added, the result is creamy milk chocolate. 

Close up of the cacao pod with the beans and pulp

Next time you need a chocolate fix stop by The Leaf and see if you can spot some cacao pods!

As a side note, when visiting the biomes, you may have noticed that some leaves are yellow or dropping from the cacao tree. This colouration is natural as the cacao is an evergreen and naturally drops its leaves all year long. The newest leaves are red then turn green and eventually yellow when they drop off the tree.