If you’re like most people, you probably love chocolate. You may be a casual chocolate lover, or perhaps are an aficionado and have tasted every kind in the world.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to grow your very own chocolate tree from the seed of a freshly ripened cacao pod. Yes, that’s right. Follow these instructions and you can have the ultimate conversation piece in your home or in your yard (if you live in a tropical climate).
In theory, you can even make real chocolate from the cacao you grow to really impress your friend and family.
Species of Cacao Trees
There are three main species of cacao used to make chocolate: Theobroma Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario.
Theobroma Forastero is native to Africa, Ecuador, and Brazil and is the dominant source for cocoa in the world.
Theobroma Criollo is a rare type of cacao used in fine chocolates and accounts for about five percent of the world’s cocoa supply.
Theobroma Trinitario is a hybrid bringing the best of both worlds Criollo and Forastero.
When growing a Cacao tree, keep in mind the native environment is similar to a shady jungle floor under the canopy of a tropical rainforest. Filtered, indirect sunlight, warmth, just enough water but not too much and a soil that is well-drained, slightly acidic around PH 6.
How to Buy Cacao Pods with Viable Seeds
If you live in one of the regions where cacao grows naturally, you may be able to find a cacao pod at your local market or cocoa farm. Cocoa growing countries include Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, West Africa, Asia and more.
If you live outside of where it is grown, you may need to order online or through a mail-order catalog. Here are a few places I have seen cacao pods available for purchase. The difficulty in obtaining them will depend on the current season.
Important notes – when buying a cacao pod, make sure it is fresh and not a dried one. Dried pods are sometimes sold for ornamental purposes. The same goes for buying seeds. You can buy raw cacao seeds but you must have fresh seeds that are either still in the pod or were removed right before shipping to you.
Try to get a tracking number when you order so you will know what day it will arrive and keep an eye out for delivery. On my recent order, mine sat in a hot mailbox for a bit too long and the pods were very warm. Luckily, they survived and most of the seeds sprouted. 🙂
Also, you may wish to do a quick search for your country to make sure there are no import restrictions for cacao pods, seeds or plants.
Where to Buy Cacao Pods
eBay – This is one of the best sources and where the pod was purchased to research this article. My source is located in Florida, so arrived quickly and was no worry of the fruit going bad. I have seen sellers located far away in Sri Lanka, so look closely at the listing and how long it takes to ship to you.
Etsy – Another good site with several cacao pod vendors. Be sure to read listing carefully as some may look like they are selling pods, but are actually selling crafts or artwork. Use keywords such as fresh, viable, seeds, etc.
Amazon – The number of sellers here will depend on the season. So far it looks like there are fewer pods available here compared to other sites. Read listing and reviews carefully and look at shipping times.
Montoso Gardens – Located in Puerto Rico, I have seen several mentions of Montoso Gardens as a recommended seller of cacao pods. To find their current stock of pods for sale, go to their online store, then select “Tropical Fruit Seeds”. At the bottom of the first page, go to page 2 to see their inventory. You may want to email them about whether they send you the complete pods or fresh seeds before you order. As of this writing, they have many different kinds of cocoa including Herrania Mariae (mountain cocoa), Herrania Umbratica (wild Colombian cocoa), Theobroma varieties including cacao, angustifolium (emerald cacao), bicolor and grandiflorum. Truly the largest selection I’ve seen yet.
Craigslist, Facebook – It’s possible you may be able to find someone selling a Cacao pod, seeds or plants near you on Craigslist or Facebook. The odds are low, but you never know.
Local nurseries – If all else fails, there’s a good chance a local nursery can help you obtain a pod, seeds or plant. They may be able to have it shipped directly to them giving you a layer of buyer protection in case your order doesn’t arrive in a viable condition. To find a local nursery, your best bet is to simply search on Google Maps.
Botanical Gardens – Do you have a botanical garden near you? This is another place that may be able to help you out or at least point you in the right direction.
When to Buy Cacao Pods
Depending on where you live, you will want to purchase fresh cacao pods in the warmer months where you live. Cacao pods will always be shipped from a warm, tropical location, so you just need to have a sense of the weather along the shipping route to your destination. Typically, fresh pods are available from sellers in Spring/Summer months in the USA. Read seller listings carefully for availability and special instructions.
Some sellers may be located far away from you. Read listings carefully – especially how long it takes to ship to you. If you order one from far away it’s possible that the seeds may still be viable, but the longer a cacao pod takes to get to you, the more likely you will have wasted your money. Try to find a seller as close to you as possible with fast shipping.
If you don’t care about the adventure of growing from seed you can start from a seedling or even a young cocoa tree if you wish. You’ll pay more, but it saves you from going through the initial germination phase. But, that’s no fun, is it?
Harvesting and Preparing Cacao Seeds
Now comes the fun part. You’ve obtained a fresh, rare cacao pod and it’s time to see what’s inside it!
Before you open your pod, you will need to make sure it is ripe. The color will depend on the species. The pod pictured in this article was a Theobroma Forastero variety and yellow when ripe. The other two main varieties will be red or orange. Red if it is a Criollo, or orange if Trinitario. It’s pretty easy to tell when it’s ready. If it’s not hard and green then you should be good to go. Don’t wait too long as the fruit may quickly turn brown and seeds lose their viability.
Cutting Open the Pod:
You can cut the pod lengthwise or across the middle. It’s up to you. If you cut across the middle you reduce the chance of damaging seeds. In theory, you can then dry out your pod halves and turn them into ornamental cups.
If you cut them lengthwise, the seeds are easier to remove, but could possibly damage more of them. As long as you take your time and are careful, you shouldn’t have a problem though. Be sure not to cut through the pod – cut deep enough to reach the hollow center.
Once you have the pod open, the insides resemble what it looks like when you cut open a pumpkin. A bunch of goo and a cluster of seeds. Simply scoop out the seeds with a spoon or knife. Once you have the mass of seeds and goo out, separate them and place them in a bowl of water to let them soak for a few minutes. Typically, each Cacao pod contains about 30 to 50 seeds.
If you see any seeds that float after a few minutes it is likely they are not viable and may not sprout. It’s up to you if you want to try to plant them – or just throw away any that float.
Remove Outer Membrane of Each Cacao Seed
After the seeds have soaked for 5 or 10 minutes, you need to remove the outer membrane of each seed. This is harder than it looks. The membrane is slippery and it takes a little practice to get the perfect technique down to remove them.
I found the best way is to hold each seed under running water in your kitchen sink and cut the membrane with your fingernail or a dull butter knife. Gently keep cutting the membrane until you see a distinctly dark, hard bean emerge. You’ll know it when you see it. Once you have reached that far you can start peeling it until only the dark brown cocoa bean is left. Wash any excess material off and put each seed on a paper towel.
Continue until all the bean membranes have been removed.
Another technique for removing the skins is to suck on each seed until it comes off.
They taste a bit like a banana if you are feeling adventurous.
Planting and Germinating Cacao Seeds
Now that you have prepared all of you Cacao sees, it’s time to plant them – immediately. Do not freeze the seeds or dry them thinking you can plant them later. You must plant them immediately.
Use a seed starter tray or individual pots – whatever you prefer. Clay pots are the best overall, but if you want to start in a tray first, you can transfer to clay later.
The soil should be a well-drained mix (50% soil, 50% sand). I used Miracle Grow Cactus, Palm & Citrus potting mix and it seems to be working just fine.
When you plant the seeds, place the root of the seed pointing down. The root should be noticeable – a little white dot where the root will soon emerge.
Once all the seeds are planted, add more soil to the top layer of your pots and water. The soil should be moist, but not drenched. Do not let the soil dry out.
If you are planting your Cacao seeds in the cooler months, you may want to use a seedling heat map to help them germinate.
A temperature of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit is needed for successful germination.
You can start the Cacao seedlings indoors and move them outdoors once they begin growing.
Make sure they have indirect, filtered sunlight or even in a shady area on your patio or in your yard.
Do not leave in direct sunlight or in hot areas or they may get fried.
From Seedling to Tree
After about a week you will start to see Cacao seedlings emerge from the soil. At first, they look pretty ugly, with the bean still intact and new green leaves coming out from it.
Once your Cacao seedlings have reached 2-3 inches in height, transplant into larger clay pots, or similar containers that allow for good drainage.
Again, use a well-drained soil mix such as 50/50 soil and sand. It should be slightly acidic around with a ph of around 6.
Do not let the soil get dry and do not let it become too soaked. Best to keep the soil moist to the touch.
Every six to twelve months you will want to remove the salt from your chocolate tree’s soil with the process of leaching to prevent the plant from dying. Simply run water from the top of the soil to the bottom for a few minutes. Add a bit of new soil to the top if necessary.
How to Pollinate Your Cacao Trees
It takes about 2-5 years before your Cacao tree will be able to produce fruit (in the form of a Cacao pod). The general rule of thumb is the tree must be big and strong enough to hold the weight of the pods.
Once they have matured into a strong tree, they will need to be pollinated to produce fruit.
Your tree is either self-compatible or self-incompatible. If you have a self-compatible cacao tree, you can pollinate it from another flower on the plant.
If you have a self-incompatible cacao tree, you will need to fertilize one tree from the flower of another tree.
It’s a good idea to ask the seller where you bought your pod/seed or seedling if they know what type of pollinating Cacao you have before or shortly after you buy so they don’t lose track if you wait too long to ask.
If you have a self-incompatible Cacao, you may need to call around to local nurseries and botanical gardens to see if you can get pollen from another tree.
To pollinate, take the flower from one tree and rub what is called the “antlers” to the stigma. Since Cacao flowers are notoriously difficult to pollinate, patience and additional research may be helpful. You may be able to get help from a local botanist, gardening club or nursery.
How Long Does it Take for a Cacao Pod to Grow and Ripen?
After a successful pollination, it takes around 5 to 6 months for the flower to turn into a fully ripened pod.
How Tall Does a Cacao Tree Grow?
About 15-30 feet
How to Make Chocolate from Raw Cacao Pods
If you really want to have the full chocolate experience, you can try to make your own chocolate from the pods you have harvested from the plants you have grown.
It’s a little more complicated than simply drying up the beans and grinding them up. They need to be fermented and roasted in order to develop the chocolate flavor. This subject is beyond the scope of this article, but here’s a good YouTube video on the topic.
How to Make Money Selling Chocolate Trees
Since you can grow around 30 to 50 plants from one pod, it’s possible you can make money growing and selling chocolate trees locally to specialty chocolate shops, coffee shops, bakeries, flower shops or at a farmer’s market.
You can also try selling locally via Facebook, Craigslist or using apps such as 5Miles.
The bigger your plants get, the more you can sell them for. You can also sell the seedlings through eBay. Just be aware of various import/export rules for cacao trees.
If you can’t sell them, grow them to give away as gifts during holidays or other special occasions.
Growing a cacao tree is fun, exciting and of course, very cool. How many people do you know can say they have their very own chocolate tree?
Since you can grow around 30 to 50 plants from one pod, it’s possible you can make money growing and selling chocolate trees locally. Or, grow them to give away as gifts during holidays or other special occasions.
If you’re really ambitious, who knows – maybe you’ll start your own chocolate factory and be the next Hershey’s or Godiva. Good luck!