Theobroma cacao, commonly known as the chocolate tree, belongs to the Malvaceae family. The chocolate tree is native to tropical America, but is also commonly grown in western Africa (Cacao, 2012). This tree is shade tolerant, prefers nutrient-rich, moist soils, and is unable to survive in dry weather (Theobroma Cacao, 2015). It typically grows 5 to 8 meters in height, and bright green leaves (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2015). The small pink flowers (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2015) of the chocolate tree grow right on the trunk, and are pollinated by small flies called midges (Cacao, 2012).
The flowers eventually produce fruit, normally referred to as pods (Cacao, 2012). The cocoa pods usually contain around 20 to 60 beans inside, which are surrounded by an edible white sticky substance (Theobroma Cacao, 2015; Missouri Botanical Garden, 2015). These beans can be used for different purposes, the most common and well known being the production of chocolate (Cacao, 2012). The seeds from this tree contain a substance called theobromine, which is a nerve stimulant that has effects similar to caffeine (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2015).
Historically, the fruit of the chocolate tree has been used by humans as far back as 1000 B.C. in Mesoamerica (Rusconi & Conti, 2009). The Mayans were among the first to use the beans from the chocolate tree, and would use them to produce a type of chocolate drink (Ancients in Mesoamerica, 2015). The Aztecs used cacao beans as a form of currency in addition to consuming it, and when it was introduced to Europe, it was primarily only consumed as an expensive medicinal drug by the rich and royal (Food of the Gods, 2007; Drink of the Elite, 2007).
Ancients in Mesoamerica. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3445
Eden Project. 2012. Cacao. Retrieved from: http://www.edenproject.com/visit-us/whats-here/plant-a-z/cacao
Cornell University. 2007. Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Retrieved from: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/
Cornell University. 2007. Drink of the Elite. Retrieved from: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/theelite.php
Missouri Botanical Garden. 2015. Theobroma cacao. Retrieved from: http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=d462
Rainforest Alliance. 2015. Cacao (Theobroma cacao). Retrieved from: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/kids/species-profiles/cacao
Rusconi, M & Conti, A. 2009. Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods: a scientific approach beyond myths and claims. Pharmacological Research, 61:5-13.