Incredibly delicate, in addition to having a complex structure, the cacao flower is one of the most beautiful flowers in the world. It does take a keen eye, however, to appreciate them, because they are very small—only about one-half inch across. Unlike most flowers, they grow directly from the trunk of the tree or from the body of the branches; when the tree is in bloom, the trunk and branches are covered with literally thousands of tiny, yet beautiful cocoa flowers.
It is interesting to note that the cacao flower’s beauty does not extend to its scent. In fact, if you are waiting for some enterprising chocolate company to come out with a perfume entitled “Eau de Parfum Cacao Fleur,” you will have to wait a very long time. The reason is simply that the cacao flower is unique in another way—It has no smell. It is also for this reason that bees and other pollinating insects do not fertilize the cacao flowers but instead leave pollination to other insects.
Pollination of the cacao flower occurs by the actions of midges and other jungle insects. Midges are a type of gnat that live on the jungle floor under leaves and other debris. When they fertilize the cocoa flower, it is not through attraction by the flower by either scent or nectar (because there isn’t any of either) but simply through random chance. It is perhaps for this reason that the cocoa tree is furnished with the massive quantities of flowers that it is. It has been estimated that on average only one out of one hundred cacao flowers will become fertilized and grow into a cocoa pod. It is interesting to think how the lowly midge (or gnat) is responsible for fertilizing the cacao tree and creating one of the world’s greatest foods.
If the flower is fertilized and conditions are perfect, the cacao flowers will start to grow into cacao pods. Even at this stage, a pod is not guaranteed. The vast majority of pods that start to develop will grow until they are a few inches long’ then if the conditions are still not just right, the pod will die.
The baby cocoa pod is called a chileo because it looks like a baby chili. For one reason or another, many cocoa pods do not make it past the chileo stage. Everything must be perfect in order for the cocoa tree to develop a cocoa pod to full maturity. As the cocoa pod grows and develops, it will begin to take on one of a wide variety of possible shapes and colors.
Cocoa pods are shaped a bit like an American style football. They can be smooth, wrinkly, or warty. They can be long and pointed, or they can be bulbous, like a melon or papaya. The colors of cocoa pods are equally as great. Colors such as red, purple, yellow and green are common. There are even white cocoa pods from the rare Porcelana variety (though the name refers to the white cocoa beans, not the pod itself).
Technically, the cocoa pod is considered to be a berry. Each pod contains on average between 20-40 beans with the vast majority producing between 38 to 40 beans. The cocoa pod itself is relatively hard—especially when compared to other berries. The pod has a soft wooden-like shell approximately one quarter of an inch thick. While hard, the shell may be easily broken open with the use of a machete or byhitting the pod sharply with a heavy stick or rock.
Each bean is surrounded by white mucilage-like material that many call a placenta. It is sweet, yet bitter, like a very sweet and yet mild floral lemon. On a hot day in the cocoa field, the workers often suck it off the bean as a refreshing treat.
There are two main forms of propagation for cocoa trees. In the first, the cacao pods may be harvested and their seeds used to plant new trees. The cacao tree is unique in that the cacao seeds begin to germinate at the time the pods are picked from the tree. Planting from the seed helps preserve genetic diversity among the crop. However, this can be a problem on plantations where multiple varieties of cacao trees are present in close proximity. Because it is possible for pollen from neighboring cacao trees to fertilize the pods on the tree that is being propagated, it is likely that its cacao pods will carry a variety of genetic material. In addition, having a wide genetic diversity makes judging when cocoa pods are ripe difficult. Since cocoa trees typically have a wide variety in the shapes, sizes and colors of their pods, judging when the pods are ripe can be difficult. Having a narrow genetic diversity helps the farmer, since all the trees behave the same and the farmer can simply learn how “one” tree ripens, instead of having to remember how individual trees throughout an entire plantation ripen.
To avoid these problems, many farmers instead prefer to propagate the cacao trees through cuttings. The most common form is through the use of grafting. In this case, a cutting is removed from the tree that is being propagated. A bud is found on the branch that has been removed for cuttings. The bud is typically at a leaf juncture, and if the branch were to grow on its own, this would be where a new branch would form. The bud is cut off the branch by cutting the bark around it in the shape of a elongated diamond. The bud is carefully removed, while care is taken not to touch the newly exposed surface area.
A tree approximately 18 inches tall is chosen to be host to the cutting. This host tree may be virtually any variety, since in the end only the roots will be utilized, and for that reason it is called rootstock. Optimally, the host tree will be the same diameter as the branch from which the bud was cut. A grafting knife is used to make a cut in the shape of a triangle in the bark of the host tree, and the bud is inserted. The grafting is placed about one -third of the way from the bottom of the rootstock. The area is now wrapped with grafting tape, which helps to keep the bud placed closely on the host tree,in addition to keeping it moist.
After a week, it is apparent whether the graft has taken or not; and after a month, if the graft has taken, it will be completely fused to the rootstock. At this point, the wrapping may be removed. As the graft grows, new growth on the rootstock is trimmed, forcing nutrients into the graft. As the graft grows, it is tied to the remaining “trunk” of the rootstock, where it is guided to grow parallel to the original trunk. Eventually, all the remaining growth from the original rootstock is trimmed. The remains of the trunk will eventually dry and drop off. Five to six months after the original grafting, the cocoa tree is ready for replanting.
Interestingly, cocoa trees grown from cuttings differ significantly from those grown from the bean. Trees grown from a planted bean tend to grow vertically and can achieve great heights (on the order of 25 feet or more), while those grown from grafts or other cuttings tend to grow outward. This benefits the farmer, because the cocoa pods are closer to the ground and the tree is easier to trim and otherwise shape.
Unfortunately, when trees are propagated through the use of cuttings, the overall genetic diversity of the crop is reduced. This is ordinarily not a problem. However, when one of the variety of diseases infects one tree of a plantation, all the rest of the trees with similar genetics have a greater likelihood of infection.
In the wild, the cocoa pods do not naturally drop off the tree when they are fully ripe, nor do they break open to release the beans. Because of this, the cocoa tree is dependent on wild animals to break open the pods and scatter its seeds. Rats, monkeys, and squirrels, as well as other small animals, will break into the cocoa pods in order to eat the sweet mucilage placenta that surrounds each bean.
The high levels of tannins in unfermented beans give hem an astringent taste and make them generally unpalatable. The animals, when done eating the bean’s placenta, will scatter the astringent seeds on the forest floor and thus help guarantee another generation of cacao trees. It is fascinating to think that the cocoa beans the animals scatter carelessly on the jungle floor turn out in the end to be the real treasure.
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