Field of Science

Plant of the week - Wild cacao

Cacao is our source of cocoa, chocolate. It's scientific name is Theobroma, drink of the gods, so called because a hot, fatty, spicy, bitter chocolate concoction was the royal beverage of the Aztecs. This may not sound good, but chocolate contains a chemical similar to caffeine, so strong chocolate is a stimulant. A local chocolate shop makes a deeply rich, semi-sweet, dark chocolate bark with ground up coffee beans in it. Just a couple of pieces can give you a buzz; it's should be illegal to sell to minors.

This rain forest tree is native to Costa Rica, and like many tropical trees its flowers appear directly out of its trunk and branches. One of the flowers is shown here and it's a little hard to figure out. It seems to have more perianth parts than usual flowers. From the top down, there are bracts, sepals with a curved, translucent base and a small heart-shaped red apex folded back upon itself, and lastly red petals. The stamens are hidden within the base of the sepals.

The fruits that later develop are rather hard, grooved, pink capsules within which a soft pulp surrounds hard seeds from which the chocolate is obtained. Such fruits are mammal dispersed. The soft pulp provides a nutritive reward and the hard seeds are discarded, or if swallowed, pass through the GI tract unharmed, and perhaps prepared for germination.

This particular species (T. siminaca) is wild and not the cacao tree of commerce (T. cacao).

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