The fruit of the cacao tree is a football-shaped pod that comes in various colors depending on genetics and degree of ripeness—green, yellow, orange, red, purple or maroon. Cacao pods ranges from eight to 14 inches long and grows directly from the tree’s main branches and trunk, not from a stem like an apple does. The pod’s outer covering can run the gamut from thin to thick, soft to woody, smooth to leathery to warty to ridged. Inside each pod is sweet white pulp and juice—which can be used to make drinks with a sweet, mild flavor—covering 50 to 60 seeds.
Before cacao pods can grow, however, the tree’s flowers must be pollinated. These intricate pink or white flowers appear on the tree’s trunk and main branches and are tiny—only about half an inch across. They have no scent. Insects such as a type of gnat called a midge pollinate them naturally, or a farmer can do so by hand. Of the thousands of flowers on each tree, only three to 10 percent will become fruit. The same tree may have both cocoa flowers and fruit on it at any given time, as the tree bears fruit year round. Pods ripen after five to six months.
The trees yield three main varieties:
- Criollo: Called the prince of cacaos, Criollo is a rare bean grown mainly in Central America and the Caribbean. Its pod is soft and thin and light-colored. Only a small percent of the world’s cocoa comes from this fragrant bean.
- Forastero: More commonly found and more productive, Forastero trees have thicker pods and a strong chocolate taste. Most cocoa is of this variety, and it thrives in Brazil and Africa.
- Trinitario: This cross of Criollo and Forastero, which originated in Trinidad, is easily cultivated. It has smooth pods and flavorful beans.
Because the flowers cross-pollinate easily, a single tree usually has characteristics of more than one type, except under carefully controlled cultivation.
No Words to Describe It
Chocolate-lovers might think their favorite treat defies words—and botanists agree. Debate surrounds what the cacao pod is, botanically. Some say it is a fruit, and others a berry. Many choose the middle ground and call the fruit baccate, which means “like a berry,” but the bottom line is that the pod doesn’t fit into any existing categories. Like chocolate, it’s indescribable.