“All You Need is Love. And A Little Chocolate Never Hurt Either.” Charles M. Schultz
As Valentine’s day approaches, let’s take a look at the plant from which chocolate, a beloved treat and frequent gift of the season, derives. Theobroma cacao (kah KOW) is responsible for chocolate and was first cultivated over 2,000 years ago in Central America’s rainforest. The Aztecs called the plant “food of the gods,” which Linneaus, the father of taxonomy, used to name the plant (Theo=god, broma=food). The seeds take three to five years to develop and were initially traded as currency, then as a spicy drink mixed with chilies and vanilla. This beverage was coveted by the upper class, much as the finest wines are today!
From Plant to Sweet Indulgence
The cacao plant is pollinated by a small fly, called a midge, that lives on the forest floor. These midges have 1,000 wing beats per second, reported to be the fastest in the world. Once pollinated, the seed pods, which reach the size of footballs, develop directly from the trunk of the tree, a growth pattern called califlorius. The pods are ready for harvest when they turn yellow or orange, at which time they are picked by hand and cracked to expose a thick, milky white pulp which surrounds 30-50 seeds. The seeds are dried and fermented, often in the sun.
Once dried, a multi-step process begins to produce the chocolate products we consume today. As chocolate in its natural state is quite bitter, sugar and other additives are added to produce the flavor we love.
Is There Really A Love Connection?
Cacao is rich in caffeine and theobromine which act on the central nervous system and phenylethylamine, a chemical found in both chocolate and the human brain. It is hypothesized by some chemists that these factors may contribute to the belief in the chocolate-love mystic, however, solid evidence has not been found. Suffice it to say, popular culture and romantics everywhere can’t resist believing!
Want to Learn More?
Celebrate chocolate’s health benefits in this article from CSU’s department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
See Theobroma Cacao in person in the conservatory of the Denver Botanic Gardens
Visit Chocolate: The Exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibit was developed by The Field Museum in Chicago and runs from February 12 – May 8, 2016.
Written by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener with thanks to the Denver Museum of Natural History for the generous use of materials.
Chocolate Box:© 2002 Photodisc
Cacao Tree: © Robin Foster, The Field Museum
Broken Cacao Pod and Worker Drying Seeds: images used with permission of Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Incorporated.