Theobroma cacao

Common Names 

English: cocoa, cacao

Spanish: cacao

Portuguese: cacau

French: cacao, cacaotier


Origin and Distribution 

Native to the central and western Amazon region.  Has been widely distributed throughout the humid tropics, with major commercial production in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil and Cameroon. 


Botanical Synonyms

Theobroma sativum. 



Medium sized tree, reaching 20-30 feet (6-9 m) tall. Branches are produced in groups of three to five. The leaves are simple, 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) long, light to dark green and soft and flexible.  New growth is bright red or pink.  Small whitish flowers are produced on the branches and trunk, singly or in groups of 3-5. Fruits are 5-10 inches (13-26 cm) in length and 2-3 inches (5-7.6 cm) in diameter.  The fruit has a hard shell which may be smooth or ridged, elongated or rounded, red, yellow, or orange, and contains between 20-50 seeds, surrounded by a cream colored, sweet-sour, aromatic pulp.


Theobroma cacao (cacao or cocoa) fruit growing out of the trunk
Theobroma cacao


Propagation and Culture

Propagation is by seeds, airlayers, cuttings or grafts. Seeds germinate in 5-10 days, but lose viability quickly if they dry out. Seedlings should be grown under 50% shade. Cacao may be cleft or patch grafted.

Cacao is adapted to a humid tropical climate, and grows best in fertile, well drained soils. Trees grow best with light shade, but will grow well in full sun with adequate soil moisture. In its natural habitat, cacao is found growing as a forest understory tree at altitudes up to 3,000 feet (900 m).

Growth is rapid, and fruiting occurs 2-3 years from planting. A mature tree can produce more than  fruits per year. Cacao flowers and fruits year round in Puerto Rico. Fruits change color from green or dark purple to bright yellow, orange or red, when they ripen.  Unharvested fruits dry up and turn black, staying attached to the tree for weeks until they finally fall.

Cacao clones may be self-incompatible, requiring cross pollination to set fruits.  Hand pollination may be necessary if pollinating insects are absent, and should be done early in the morning, using two different trees for cross pollination.  Fruit development takes 120-150 days from pollination to maturity.



Four cacao (Theobroma cacao) varieties showing internal and external variation
Clockwise from top left: "Large Rounded Orange Red", "Long Ribbed Yellow", "Small Yellow", and "Medium Red" Theobroma cacao fruits


Cultivars and Related Species

Cacao types are classified into three main groups: criollo, forastero and trinitario.  Criollo cacao developed in northern South America and Central America, and have thin walled, red or yellow fruits.  The seeds are large, round, white or pale purple, not astringent, and produce the highest quality chocolate.  Unfortunately, criollo types are low yielding and susceptible to many diseases, and are rare in cultivation.  Forastero cacaos are from the Amazon Basin, and have a thick walled, smooth, usually yellow fruit.  The seeds are flattened and purple in color.  Forastero cacaos are very productive, and dominate the world cacao production.  Trinitario cacaos arose in Trinidad as hybrids of criollo and forastero types.  They are highly variable, and considered high quality for chocolate production.

There are thousands of clones of cacao in field gene banks in different areas of the world.  Some of the largest collections are at the Cocoa Research Institute in Tafo, Ghana (6,000 accessions), the International Cocoa Genebank in Trinidad (1,872 accessions), and CEPLAC in Brazil (1,749 accessions).  The Tropical Agriculture Research Station, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, has 372 accessions.

There are approximately 22 Theobroma species, and about 15 are utilized for their edible pulp or seeds. Cacao is the most important species. Theobroma grandiflorum (cupuassu), Theobroma gileri (mountain cocoa), T. bicolor (macambo) and T. subincanum (wild cocoa) are other species utilized for their sweet, edible pulp and edible seeds.


Criollo cacao fruits showing open seed with white cotyledons.     Comparison of trinitario and criollo cacao fruits.     Close up of trinitario and criollo cacao seeds.     Close up of trinitario and criollo cacao seeds showing cotyledon color.
Thumbnails (click to enlarge) of a) criollo cacao fruits with seed cut open, b) trinitario (thick shell and purple seeds) and criollo (thin shell and white seeds) fruits, c) close up of open fruits and cut seeds, and d) close up of cut seeds.



Cacao is grown primarily for chocolate production, but the edible pulp is delicious and often consumed in the tropics. 

Cocoa butter is used medicinally in Brazil for healing bruises, and is used by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.  The seeds contain about 2% of the alkaloid theobromine, which is a central nervous system stimulant, similar to caffeine.  Theobromine is used as a diuretic and to lower blood pressure, since it dilates the blood vessels.

Dry cacao seeds (also known as "beans") may contain as much as 12-18% polyphenols, known as cocoa polyphenols or cocoa flavonoids.  Most of the polyphenols in cacao are epicatechin and catechin, but other catechins and quercetin are also present.  Cocoa flavonoids have potent antioxidant activity, and have been shown to scavenge free radicals and inhibit the oxidation of LDL.  They may also have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory activities, and may promote cardiovascular and immune health.  Cocoa, baking chocolate and milk chocolate all contain polyphenols.


Nutritional composition per 100 g cocoa powder

Carbohydrate 16.5 g
Protein  21.5 g
Fat 11 g
Dietary fiber  34 g
Polyphenols 7-18 g
Theobromine 2.5 g
Caffeine 0.1 g
Potassium 2 g
Calcium 150 mg
Magnesium 550 mg
Phosphorous  700 mg


More information on cacao

International Cocoa Organization
All you ever wanted to know about cacao, including production statistics, processing, history, and much, much more.








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