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Theobroma Cacao

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Theobroma cacao, also known as the cocoa tree and the chocolate tree, is a small, evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae. It produces cocoa beans which are used to make cocoa mass, cocoa powder, confectionery, ganache, and chocolate. Cocoa beans are one of the most valuable commodities in the world.

Taxanomy of Theobroma Cacao

Theobroma cacao is a member of the Malvaceae, or mallow, family. Theobroma cacao is the only member of the genus Theobroma. The scientific name Theobroma cacao literally means “cacao, food of the gods”.

Theobroma cacao was first classified by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The genus name Theobroma comes from the Greek words for "food of the gods." The species name cacao is derived from the Nahuatl word for "cacao bean".

Description of Theobroma cacao Tree

The Theobroma cacao tree grows to a height of about 20 feet (6 meters). The trunk is straight and the bark is smooth, thin, and pinkish-gray in color. The branches are slender and spread out evenly. The leaves are oblong-shaped, dark green, and measure about 4–8 inches (10–20 cm) long and 2–3 inches (5–7 cm) wide.

The flowers grow directly from the trunk, branches, or leaf axils. They are small, white, and have 10 petals arranged in a star-like pattern. The fruit grows directly from the trunk or branches. It is oval or pear-shaped, measures 3–6 inches (7.5–15 cm) long, and is green or yellow when ripe. The fruit pulp is pink, red, or purple and contains 20–60 seeds.

In the wild, cacao trees can live up to 100 years. However, most commercially grown cacao trees only live for about 20 years because they are heavily pruned to make harvesting the fruit easier.

Geographical Distribution of the Cacao Tree

The Theobroma cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin and the Orinoco Basin in South America. It is believed to have originated in the region that includes the countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. 

It was first domesticated by the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs in Mesoamerica. The Spaniards introduced the cacao tree to the West Indies and Mexico in the 16th century.

Today, it is cultivated in tropical regions around the world, including Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America.

Ecology of the Cacao Tree

The Theobroma cacao tree grows best in tropical climates with high humidity and ample rainfall. It prefers deep, well-drained soils.

It is shade-tolerant and can grow under a canopy of other trees. However, it typically produces more fruit when grown in full sun.

The trees are generally propagated by seed. However, vegetative propagation methods, such as grafting and rooting cuttings, are sometimes used.

The trees begin bearing fruit at 3–5 years of age and can produce for up to 50 years. It will not tolerate prolonged drought or frost. It is also sensitive to wind and should be protected from strong winds.

History of Theobrama Cacao

It is believed that cocoa originated in the Amazonian basin and was used by pre-Columbian cultures. It is one of two species from which chocolate comes (the other being Theobroma bicolor).

The Mayans and Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency. Cocoa beans were also used in religious ceremonies. 

The Spaniards introduced the cacao tree to the West Indies and Mexico in the 16th century. Read more on history of cocoa

Cacao plantations quickly spread throughout South America, Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Cocoa was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century. It quickly became popular as a drink among the wealthy.

During the Industrial Revolution, new technologies were developed that made mass production of chocolate possible. Chocolate became more widely available and affordable to people of all socioeconomic classes.

Today, chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the world.

Uses of Cacao

Theobroma cacao has a long history of use by humans. The Maya and Aztec people believed that the cacao tree was created by their gods. They used the beans to make a bitter beverage called "xocolatl". This drink was reserved for religious ceremonies and warfare.

The Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century were not impressed with "xocolatl". They added sugar to the drink and it became more popular. Cocoa eventually made its way to Europe where it became a fashionable drink among the upper classes.

Cocoa beans are one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Theobroma cacao is an important economic crop. It is grown in more than 50 countries and is a significant source of income for many small farmers.

Theobroma cacao is used to make a variety of food and non-food products. The seeds of the cacao tree are used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate, and other products.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is used in baking and as an ingredient in many sweet and savory dishes.

Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and confectionery.


Chocolate is a popular candy made from cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and other ingredients.

Other Products

Theobroma cacao is also used to make a variety of non-food products, such as soaps, detergents, and shampoos.

Traditional Medicine

Cacao has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. The Maya and Aztec people used it to treat a variety of ailments, including fevers, gastrointestinal problems, and infections.

Cacao is still used in traditional medicine today. It is believed to have a number of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving cardiovascular health, and protecting against cognitive decline.

Natural Dyes

Theobroma cacao can be used to make a variety of natural dyes. The seeds and pulp of the cacao fruit contain pigments that can be used to color fabrics, cosmetics, and other products.

Cosmetic Uses

Cacao butter is a popular ingredient in cosmetics. It is used in lip balms, lotions, and other products.

Is cacao fruit edible?

The cacao fruit is edible, but it is not as popular as the seeds. The fruit has a sour taste and is often used in savory dishes.

The fruit can also be eaten fresh. The fruit pulp can be used to make beverages and sauces. It is also used in some traditional medicines.

Is Theobroma and Cacao the same?

There is some confusion about whether Theobroma and cacao are the same. The two words are often used interchangeably, but they are not actually the same.

Theobroma is the genus name for the tree that produces cacao beans. Cacao is the species name for the beans that are used to make chocolate.


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