Who doesn’t love chocolate? On this cold, rainy/sleety day here in Michigan, a cup of hot cocoa hits the spot. I never really thought about where chocolate comes from. I just know I love it. But, I decided to find out more about this yummy food and whence it came.
I guess I must have known it came from a plant, but had never seen one. Cocao, pronounced “ca-cow” is Theobrama cocao and Theobrama means “food of the Gods”. I think we can all agree that chocolate is pretty special. I was surprised when I saw this tree at Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, MI. I was walking through the conservatory and noticed these flowers blooming on the trunk of a tree. Literally, ON the trunk. They really are quite small, but gorgeous when viewed up close. When flowers are attached directly to the trunk of a tree, it is called cauliflorous, from the Latin words ‘caulis’ meaning trunk or stem and ‘flory’ which means flowers. If pollinated, these flowers turn into cocao pods and are pollinated by flies. Each pod contains 30-60 seeds surrounded by white pulp and can weigh over 1 pound. When the seeds are dried and fermented, they turn a brownish red color and are known as cocao beans.
What is the difference between “cacao” and “cocoa” you ask? I didn’t know, either. After research, I found that cocao is the raw form and is full of antioxidants. After it is roasted and processed, it is then called cocoa as we know it.
The cocao tree is native to Mexico, Central and South America and is a 13-26′ tall evergreen tree. It grows as an under story tree, not needing full sun, quite often along river banks. It is in the Malvaceae family which also includes the hibiscus. The Aztecs called it xocolatl, pronounced “sho koh lah tuhl” which means “bitter water”. They, and the Mayans used the pulp from the pod to make a drink and the seeds were used as currency and flavoring.
I’m certainly glad someone learned the secret of the cocao tree, its pod and the contents. What would we do without chocolate? I don’t want to find out.