The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is a native of the dense tropical Amazon forests where it
flourishes in the semi-shade and high humidities, but wild varieties also occur from Mexico to
Peru. The Mayas of Yucatan and the
Aztecs of Mexico cultivated cocoa long
before its introduction to Europe, and
Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs, is
stated to have consumed regularly a
preparation called “chocolate made by
roasting and grinding the cocoa nibs,
followed by mashing with water, maize,
anatto, chilli and spice flavours. The
richness of this mixture no doubt had
some connection with the Aztec belief
that the cocoa tree was of divine origin
and later led the Swedish botanist,
Linnaeus, to give the name
“Theobroma” - Food of the Gods - to
the genus including the cacao species.
The Aztecs also considered the drink
Figure 1: The results of a training course in making
chocolate showing the high quality products for the
markets in Lima, Peru. ©Roger Bassil/Practical Action
to have aphrodisiac properties.
The genus Theobroma consists of some twenty-two species of small bushes and trees.
Theobroma cacao is the only one of commercial value and this species is divided into two main
There is a third group known as “Trinitario” which is basically a cross of the two.
The growing conditions required by the cocoa tree are fairly precise and the areas of cultivation
lie within 20o latitude of the equator.
The temperature in cocoa growing areas is usually between 30C and 32C. The
minimum allowable is 18C.
Rainfall levels of 1,150 to 3,000mm are required.
Soil conditions can vary considerably but a firm roothold and moisture retention are
It is traditional for cocoa to be grown under shade trees although such conditions
resemble those in its natural habitat it has been shown that higher yields can be
obtained without shade if sufficient moisture and nutrients are made available.
Propagation by seed is the most economical way of increasing stock but vegetative
methods can also be used and these provide a more consistent and reliable method of
reproducing trees of particular strains.
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