Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Different Cocao Tree Varieties

Much can be said about cocao tree varieties. Most references divide them into three groups: Criollo (pronounced cree-yo-yo), Forastero, and Trinitario. This view, though simplistic, is helpful in our discussion.

Beside the fact that many botanists disagree about these incredibly broad classifications, it must be remembered that cacao is grown in regions where the growers are generally not interested in these distinctions.

For them, cacao is a cash crop they use to feed their families. When a tree dies on their plantation, a new tree is planted, and rather than being obtained from a nursery or government- or university-sponsored cacao gene bank, the genetic material is usually obtained from another tree on the same or neighboring plantation.

Very often the variety is not given much consideration; instead other factors are considered more important, such as what is convenient, how many pods a cacao tree produces, as well as the number of seeds in a cacao pod.

Because of all this, many if not most plantations have a mix of genetic material, and thus it becomes almost impossible to specify what variety or varieties a plantation has on hand.

When the cacao beans are harvested from a tree, they are mixed with beans that have been harvested from other trees as well. This is one of the reasons why, as far as the chocolate manufacturer is concerned, it is better to think of each plantation as having its own unique genetics.

The current classification system, criollo, forastero, or trinitario, originated from Venezuela well over 100 years ago, and just mentioned, it is showing its age. Venezuela has long been known for providing some of the highest quality cocoa beans.

In fact, Venezuela was the first country to provide cocoa beans to the European cocoa markets. At the time, there was a wide variety of cocoa trees found throughout Venezuela’s plantations.

While the cocoa pods were of great variety in shape and color, they had two main things in common. The cocoa beans had a plump, almost round cross-section before they were fermented and dried. Further, the quality of the beans was excellent compared to quality found elsewhere.

In order to differentiate between the native varieties of cacao and the new varieties, the native cacao was called Criollo (native), while the new cocoa was called Forastero (foreign), and Trinitario (from Trinidad).

The terms continue to be used in trade until today, even though their meanings have shifted slightly over time.

1. Criollo

Criollo cacao typically has red or yellow pods, some being green or white (as in the case of Porcelana). The pods have bumpy or warty skin with pointed tips.

The beans, on the other hand, vary from light purple to white in color, and they are plump and full. In general, the beans from criollo cacao are considered to have a finer flavor than that of other varieties of cacao.

The criollo trees are not very disease-resistant, and hence they are hard for farmers to grow and keep healthy.

Typically when chocolate is made from the criollo beans, the chocolate is not overly rich, though the resulting chocolate will have a complex flavor that is often reminiscent of various fruits and spices. Criollo beans are therefore considered to be “flavor beans” because of their heightened flavor characteristics.

2. Forastero

Today, Forastero mainly refers to cacao that has its ancestry from the upper Amazon basin. Through trade, this cacao has been spread throughout much of the cacao-growing world, including Africa.

Today, the largest producers of cocoa beans are the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where forastero was established very early in the cocoa trade.

Because of this and the disease resistance of this variety, the top producing countries primarily grow forastero. Most of the chocolate produced in the world today is made from forastero beans.

The hull of the cocoa pod, rather than being deeply furrowed with a knobby skin and pointed pod, as the criollo pods are, are relatively smooth, with more of a bulbous pod shape.

In addition, the hull is also woodier than the criollo, and thus the pods are harder to open. The pods may also be red or yellow, as well as orange or purple. The beans themselves are very dark purple and are relatively flat compared to those of the criollo.

Unlike the criollo, the Forastero varieties are much more hardy and disease-resistant. Because of this, they are favored by farmers who, while they may not be able to command as high a price for the resulting beans, they are guaranteed of a much more saleable crop.

3. Trinitario

As the name implies, the trinitario originates from the island nation of Trinidad. Today, trinitario along with criollo provides the basis for “flavor beans,” used to enhance the flavor of today’s chocolate.

As with forastero, trinitario cocoa pods are typically not pointed, and the skin of the pods is relatively smooth (compared to that of the pods of the criollo). The cocoa beans are also flat and purple when cut in half.

It is worth mentioning that as with forastero, trinitario has spread throughout the world as a major cocoa crop. Even so, the quantities of forastero grown dwarf to those of trinitario.

One of the major sites of the original planting of Trinitario was Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where it became famous for its fine flavor. Trinitario was first planted in Ceylon in 1834, and then again planted in 1880. During that same time period, it was transplanted to Fiji, Madagascar, Samoa, Singapore, and Tanzania.

Read Also : Fertilizer Application, Pests and Diseases Control in Cocoa

Today, trinitario is highly sought after by chocolatiers worldwide for its fine flavor and is used both to provide flavor for chocolate created from “bulk beans” as well as to create super-premium chocolate when used by itself.

Cocao Flowers

Incredibly delicate, in addition to having a complex structure, the cacao flower is one of the most beautiful flowers in the world. It does take a keen eye, however, to appreciate them, because they are very small —only about 10-12mm in diameter.

Unlike most flowers, they grow directly from the trunk of the tree or from the body of the branches; when the tree is in bloom, the trunk and branches are covered with literally thousands of tiny, yet beautiful cocoa flowers.

It is interesting to note that the cacao flower’s beauty does not extend to its scent. In fact, if you are waiting for some enterprising chocolate company to come out with perfume you will have to wait a very long time.

The reason is simply that the cacao flower has no smell. It is also for this reason that bees and other pollinating insects do not fertilize the cacao flowers but instead leave pollination to other insects.

Pollination of the cacao flower occurs by the actions of midges and other jungle insects. Midges are a type of gnat that live on the jungle floor under leaves and other debris.


When they fertilize the cocoa flower, it is not through attraction by the flower by either scent or nectar (because there isn’t any of either) but simply through random chance.

It is perhaps for this reason that the cocoa tree is furnished with the massive quantities of flowers that it is. It has been estimated that on average only one out of one hundred (1%) cacao flowers will become fertilized and grow into a cocoa pod.

It is interesting to think how the lowly midge (or gnat) is responsible for fertilizing the cacao tree and creating one of the world’s greatest foods.

Cocoa Pods

If the flower is fertilized and conditions are perfect, the cacao flowers will start to grow into cacao pods. Even at this stage, a pod is not guaranteed.

The vast majority of pods that start to develop will grow until they are a few inches long’ then if the conditions are still not just right, the pod will die.

The baby cocoa pod is called a chileo because it looks like a baby chili. For one reason or another, many cocoa pods do not make it past the chileo stage.

Everything must be perfect in order for the cocoa tree to develop a cocoa pod to full maturity. As the cocoa pod grows and develops, it will begin to take on one of a wide variety of possible shapes and colors.

Cocoa pods are shaped a bit like an American style football. They can be smooth, wrinkly, or warty. They can be long and pointed, or they can be bulbous, like a melon or papaya.

The colors of cocoa pods are equally as great. Colors such as red, purple, yellow and green are common. There are even white cocoa pods from the rare Porcelana variety (though the name refers to the white cocoa beans, not the pod itself).

Technically, the cocoa pod is considered to be a berry. Each pod contains on average between 20-40 beans with the vast majority producing between 38 to 40 beans. The cocoa pod itself is relatively hard especially when compared to other berries.

The pod has a soft wooden-like shell approximately 8-10mm (one quarter of an inch) thick. While hard, the shell may be easily broken open with the use of a machete or by hitting the pod sharply with a heavy stick or rock.

Each bean is surrounded by white mucilage-like material that many call a placenta. It is sweet, yet bitter, like a very sweet and yet mild floral lemon. On a hot day in the cocoa field, the workers often suck it off the bean as a refreshing treat.

During fermentation, the mucilage material -like placenta undergo thermal decay with the liquid content turning alcoholic through the activities of yeasts


There are two main forms of propagation for cocoa trees. In the first, the cacao pods may be harvested and their seeds used to plant new trees.

The cacao tree is unique in that the cacao seeds begin to germinate at the time the pods are picked from the tree. Planting from the seed helps preserve genetic diversity among the crop.

However, this can be a problem on plantations where multiple varieties of cacao trees are present in close proximity. Because it is possible for pollen from neighboring cacao trees to fertilize the pods on the tree that is being propagated, it is likely that its cacao pods will carry a variety of genetic material.

In addition, having a wide genetic diversity makes judging when cocoa pods are ripe difficult. Since cocoa trees typically have a wide variety in the shapes, sizes and colors of their pods, judging when the pods are ripe can be difficult.

Having a narrow genetic diversity helps the farmer, since all the trees behave the same and the farmer can simply learn how “one” tree ripens, instead of having to remember how individual trees throughout an entire plantation ripen.

To avoid these problems, many farmers instead prefer to propagate the cacao trees through cuttings. The most common form is through the use of grafting. In this case, a cutting is removed from the tree that is being propagated.

A bud is found on the branch that has been removed for cuttings. The bud is typically at a leaf juncture, and if the branch were to grow on its own, this would be where a new branch would form.

The bud is cut off the branch by cutting the bark around it in the shape of an elongated diamond. The bud is carefully removed, while care is taken not to touch the newly exposed surface area.

A tree approximately 18 inches tall is chosen to be host to the cutting. This host tree may be virtually any variety, since in the end only the roots will be utilized, and for that reason it is called rootstock.

Optimally, the host tree will be the same diameter as the branch from which the bud was cut. A grafting knife is used to make a cut in the shape of a triangle in the bark of the host tree, and the bud is inserted.

The grafting is placed about one-third of the way from the bottom of the rootstock. The area is now wrapped with grafting tape, which helps to keep the bud placed closely on the host tree, in addition to keeping it moist.

After a week, it is apparent whether the graft has taken or not; and after a month, if the graft has taken, it will be completely fused to the rootstock. At this point, the wrapping may be removed.

As the graft grows, new growth on the rootstock is trimmed, forcing nutrients into the graft. As the graft grows, it is tied to the remaining “trunk” of the rootstock, where it is guided to grow parallel to the original trunk.

Eventually, all the remaining growth from the original rootstock is trimmed. The remains of the trunk will eventually dry and drop off. Five to six months after the original grafting, the cocoa tree is ready for replanting.

Interestingly, cocoa trees grown from cuttings differ significantly from those grown from the bean.

Trees grown from a planted bean tend to grow vertically and can achieve great heights (on the order of 25 feet or more), while those grown from grafts or other cuttings tend to grow outward.

This benefits the farmer, because the cocoa pods are closer to the ground and the tree is easier to trim and otherwise shape.

Unfortunately, when trees are propagated through the use of cuttings, the overall genetic diversity of the crop is reduced. This is ordinarily not a problem.

However, when one of the varieties of diseases infects one tree of a plantation, all the rest of the trees with similar genetics have a greater likelihood of infection.

In the wild, the cocoa pods do not naturally drop off the tree when they are fully ripe, nor do they break open to release the beans. Because of this, the cocoa tree is dependent on wild animals to break open the pods and scatter its seeds.

Rats, monkeys, and squirrels, as well as other small animals, will break into the cocoa pods in order to eat the sweet mucilage placenta that surrounds each bean. The high levels of tannins in unfermented beans give them an astringent taste and make them generally unpalatable.

Cocoa pod whose beans have been removed and spread on the bush floor by wild animals

After eating the bean’s placenta, the animals, will scatter the astringent seeds on the forest floor and thus help guarantee another generation of cacao trees.

It is fascinating to think that the cocoa beans the animals scatter carelessly on the jungle floor turn out in the end to be the real treasure.

In summary, in this article we discussed about the origin, botany and propagation of cacao. We learnt that cacao is the tree that bears the fruit known and called cocoa. Climatic and soil requirements for the cultivation of cacao were identified.

World regions where cocoa trees are grown were described. Nursery and field operations that are critical to the cultivation of cacao were treated.

Harvesting, processing, grading and storage of processed cocoa beans were equally treated. The chemical composition of cocoa beans as they affect chocolate flavour was treated.

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Benadine Nonye is an agricultural consultant and a writer with over 12 years of professional experience in the agriculture industry. - National Diploma in Agricultural Technology - Bachelor's Degree in Agricultural Science - Master's Degree in Science Education - PhD Student in Agricultural Economics and Environmental Policy... Visit My Websites On: 1. - Your Comprehensive Practical Agricultural Knowledge and Farmer’s Guide Website! 2. - For Effective Environmental Management through Proper Waste Management and Recycling Practices! Join Me On: Twitter: @benadinenonye - Instagram: benadinenonye - LinkedIn: benadinenonye - YouTube: Agric4Profits TV and WealthInWastes TV - Pinterest: BenadineNonye4u - Facebook: BenadineNonye

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