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Theobroma Cacao -- The Tree of Life
One of the world's most magical and incredible trees is the cocoa tree. The botanical name is theobroma cacao, which, roughly translated, means “food of the gods” or more literally. “God food.” There are actually several trees that are members of the theobroma species, such as theobroma bicolor. Only one is used for making chocolate—theobroma cacao.
The name theobroma cacao was first applied to the cocoa tree by Carolus Linnaeus—the father of modern-day taxonomic plant classification. The name was published in his classic work Systema Naturae in the mid-1700s. While there was barely any trade in cocoa at the time, it may be more than a coincidence that he applied such a name to a plant that would have such a rich future in world history.
In order for the cacao tree to produce cacao beans that are later to be used in making chocolate, all the conditions must be absolutely perfect. Any significant deviation, and the cacao tree will not provide much (if any) fruit, or it may not survive.
The cocoa tree is very particular about where it is grown. Cocoa grows almost exclusively from 20 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south of the equator, an area known as the tropical belt; and because it is rather narrow, the number of countries in which it may be grown productively is very limited. Today, the top ten producing cocoa-growing countries are (in order) the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, New Guinea, and Malaysia. Interestingly, the Ivory Coast grows more cocoa than the next six producers combined. It is from the Ivory Coast that most of the world's consumer and industrial grade cocoa originates.
While the cocoa tree will grow productively as far north (or south) as 20 degrees, in all practicality, cocoa is grown in a narrower belt. Areas approaching the edges of the tropical belt typically have the hot tropical days that cocoa trees require, but the nights tend to be cooler. While the temperature typically does not drop far enough at night to hurt the trees or even the crop, problems arise after harvest in fermenting of the cocoa beans when the temperature needs to remain above certain minimal levels for the yeasts and bacteria to properly ferment the beans.
Luckily, the tropical belt, while only containing a limited amount of land from which cocoa may be grown, contains some of the world's richest soil—much of it volcanic. In addition to providing food for the trees, the rich nutrients in these regions help to create flavorful cocoa beans filled with minerals.
Young cocoa tree on a plantation being sheltered from the wind and elements by "mother trees"
The cocoa tree is actually quite forgiving in the amount of rain it requires. Anywhere from 45 to 200 inches of rain is typical in cocoa growing regions. The trees may be grown in areas that have less rain, but in these cases, irrigation is needed to provide adequate water. While cocoa trees will grow in areas with relatively low humidity and rainfall, the cocoa tree is sensitive to wide fluctuations in temperature or humidity, so they must be grown in areas where weather is consistent. Furthermore, cocoa trees are very susceptible to wind, because their branches are not strong and hence break easily. Strong winds will quickly tear through a cocoa plantation, breaking trees and destroying fruit. To avoid this, many plantations build windbreaks to assist in sheltering the cocoa trees from possible harsh winds, .
The rich, lush soil found in cocoa-growing regions and the varying amounts of rain available to cocoa crops are but two of the key factors responsible for creating cocoa's widely varying and unique flavors. Just as flavors in wine are dependant on when the grapes are harvested, the flavors of the cocoa bean will vary depending on whether the cocoa was harvested in the fall or spring season. The amounts of rain and sun the cocoa tree receives, in addition to the nutrients found in the rich tropical soil, are like the paint and brushstrokes through which the flavors of the cocoa are enjoyed.