AppearanceLeaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10–40 cm long and 5–20 cm broad.
The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; this is known as cauliflory. The flowers are small, 1–2 cm diameter, with pink calyx. While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees or butterflies/moths , cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, ''Forcipomyia'' midges in the order Diptera. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 15–30 cm long and 8–10 cm wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. The seeds are the main ingredient of chocolate, while the pulp is used in some countries to prepare refreshing juice, smoothies, jelly, and nata. The fermented pulp, until recently discarded in Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Peru, is now being distilled there into a popular alcoholic beverage sold in the United States . Each seed contains a significant amount of fat as cocoa butter. Their most noted active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine.
Distribution''T. cacao'' is widely distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin. There were originally two hypotheses about its domestication; one said that there were two foci for domestication, one in the Lacandon area of Mexico and another in lowland South America. More recent studies of patterns of DNA diversity, however, suggest that this is not the case. Motomayor ''et al.'' sampled 1241 trees and classified them into 10 distinct genetic clusters. This study also identified areas, for example around Iquitos in modern Peru, where representatives of several genetic clusters originated. This result suggests that this is where ''T. cacao'' was originally domesticated, probably for the pulp that surrounds the beans, which is eaten as a snack and fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage. Using the DNA sequences obtained by Motomayor ''et al.'' and comparing them with data derived from climate models and the known conditions suitable for cacao, Thomas ''et al.'' have further refined the view of domestication, linking the area of greatest cacao genetic diversity to a bean-shaped area that encompasses the border between Brazil and Peru and the southern part of the Colombian-Brazilian border. Climate models indicate that at the peak of the last ice age 21,000 years ago, when habitat suitable for cacao was at its most reduced, this area was still suitable, and so provided a refugium for the species. Thomas ''et al.'' speculate that from there people took cacao to Mexico, where selection for the beans took place.
Cacao trees grow well as understory plants in humid forest ecosystems. This is equally true of abandoned cultivated trees, making it difficult to distinguish truly wild trees from those whose parents may originally have been cultivated.
StatusThe pests and diseases to which cacao is subject, along with climate change, mean that new varieties will be needed to respond to these challenges. Breeders rely on the genetic diversity conserved in field genebanks to create new varieties, because cacao has recalcitrant seeds that cannot be stored in a conventional genebank. In an effort to improve the diversity available to breeders, and ensure the future of the field genebanks, experts have drawn up A Global Strategy for the Conservation and Use of Cacao Genetic Resources, as the Foundation for a Sustainable Cocoa Economy. The strategy has been adopted by the cacao producers and their clients, and seeks to improve the characterization of cacao diversity, the sustainability and diversity of the cacao collections, the usefulness of the collections, and to ease access to better information about the conserved material. Some natural areas of cacao diversity are protected by various forms of conservation, for example national parks. However, a recent study of genetic diversity and predicted climates suggests that many of those protected areas will no longer be suitable for cacao by 2050. It also identifies an area around Iquitos in Peru that will remain suitable for cacao and that is home to considerable genetic diversity, and recommends that this area be considered for protection.
EvolutionCultivation, use, and cultural elaboration of cacao were early and extensive in Mesoamerica. Ceramic vessels with residues from the preparation of cacao beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative period. For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates cacao's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC.
The initial domestication was probably related to the making of a fermented, thus alcoholic beverage.
Several mixtures of cacao are described in ancient texts, for ceremonial or medicinal, as well as culinary, purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla , and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp. In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vessels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras and in middle formative vessels from Colha, Belize using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period vessels from a tomb at the Maya archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels. Cacao was also believed to be ground by the Aztecs and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes.The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1502, when they captured a canoe at Guanaja that contained a quantity of mysterious-looking "almonds". The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortez and others noted the vast quantities of this beverage the Aztec emperor consumed, and how it was carefully whipped by his attendants beforehand. Examples of cacao beans, along with other agricultural products, were brought back to Spain at that time, but it seems the beverage made from cacao was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles brought from the New World to Spain by Dominican friars to meet Prince Philip. Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate had spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Venezuelan and Philippine colonies . The Nahuatl-derived Spanish word ''cacao'' entered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species ''Theobroma cacao''.
Traditional pre-Hispanic beverages made with cacao are still consumed in Mesoamerica. These include the Oaxacan beverage known as ''tejate''.
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