Is there anything out there better than the thought of growing your own chocolate?
If you live in a warm, tropical location like Hawaii, you donʻt have to think about it, you can do it!
But, be prepared! These trees require a great deal of care and attention (and possibly, even hand-pollination) before you will be rewarded with a cacao pod full of seeds.
In this guide, weʻll share everything there is to know about how to grow a Cacao Tree, from Seed to Pod.
If you live in a USDA growing zone 9-11, and get plenty of rainfall and warm temperatures year-round, then you can plant a cacao tree from a seed. So letʻs get planting!
Related: Are you looking to grow tropical fruit trees, like Cacao? Youʻre in luck. Homesteadinʻ Hawaii has just opened a seed store, where we ship super fresh tropical tree seeds straight to your door. We have fruits like abiu, surname cherry, ice cream bean, rollinia and more! Check out the store today!
A Brief History Of Cacao
The first cacao trees originated in the South American rainforest, a region known for a lot of moisture and a warm, humid environment. But, these fragile trees also need protection – so make sure you plant your seedlings somewhere with plenty of shade and something to block the wind.
Step-By-Step: How To Plant Cacao From Seed
- First, you have to start with fresh seed, preferably from a seed pod.
- Seeds lose viability if the pods have been previously refrigerated or if they dry out.
- Try to plant/germinate your seeds within 10 days of collecting the pod, before they lose viability or begin to mold.
- Don’t cut the pod open with a knife! Break it open, instead.
- You risk cutting some of the seeds if you cut open the pod, and this will render them useless.
- Crack open with a sharp object or drop onto a hard floor to make the pod break open.
- Like ice cream bean seeds, cacao seeds can germinate within the pod. Avoid using seeds that have already germinated within the pod.
- Here’s the fun part; eat the sweet pulp off of all the seeds! (It tastes like rambutan fruit, I love it).
- Place seeds inside of a damp (not soaked!) paper towel, fold it over once or twice, and put it inside of a plastic bag. Put the bag in a warm location to create a humid, rainforest-like environment.
- You can expect to see sprouting anywhere from 3 days to a week.
- Plant sprouted seeds 2-3 cm into the soil (the roots facing down)
- Plant into small, well-draining pots or seed containers with a mix of 50/50 fertilizer and sandy or loamy soil.
- Maintain adequate moisture (remember- these trees come from a rainforest) but don’t let them get bogged down, either. Ensure sufficient drainage so the seeds (and later, seedlings) don’t rot.
A great plant to grow along with Cacao is Vanilla. Imagine, Chocolate and Vanilla growing in your own garden. Learn how to grow Vanilla by checking out this post, full of info on how to do just that.
Planting Cacao In Pots Is Best
You can plant your seeds directly in the soil, but I recommend homesteaders plant cacao in pots, just to get started. These trees are fragile, and it is much easier to pick up and move a pot than attempt to provide adequate shade to a tiny seedling planted in the ground.
Cacao is also picky about soil quality and thrives with fertilizer – mixing the fertilizer in a pot before you re-plant your tree in a larger container is a lot easier than mixing it into the soil around your trees already planted outdoors.
When the cacao seedling is two feet tall (after approx 9 – 12 months), you can move it from a pot or container, directly into the ground.
How Long Does It Take A Cacoa Plant To Grow From Seed?
One year: It takes approximately 1 year for a cacao tree grown from seed to be large enough to add cuttings (if you’re going for a harvest as soon as possible). It takes the same amount of time for a cacao seedling to be ready to plan directly in the ground if you started in a pot.
Three Years: It takes approximately three years before you should expect a harvest from a cacao tree grown from seed (which is pretty fast, compared to several other fruit trees).
You can expect to get pods and therefore, cacao beans, from a healthy tree for 50 years or more.
Growing Requirements For Cacao
Warm, tropical weather does NOT equal full sun in this case. Cacao needs shade, not direct sunlight. (That’s why it’s suggested to grow beside the wonderful rambutan tree or ice cream bean trees because they provide plenty of shade).
The seedlings can get some sun, but 70% shade (especially throughout the heat of the day) is advised. Once you transplant small trees (approx 12 months of growth) directly into the ground, aim for at least 50% shade in the location where they are planted.
Moisture, not pooling is the goal when watering cacao trees. One reason why I like to plant in small pots, seed containers, or bags as the plant is young is that it helps reduce the risk of over-watering these trees.
Cacao is picky about everything, it seems water, sunlight and yes, the soil should be attended to in order to grow a healthy cacao tree. Cacao does well with soil that is well-draining and has a high nutrient content.
I suggest mixing fish emulsion into your fertilizer to help increase the nitrogen and phosphorus content. You should give your cacao seedlings fertilizer every 2-3 months, as it grows.
Cacao trees actually grow deep roots, although you often see the tree pruned to short stature. Keep this in mind when you transplant the tree to the ground, make sure you plant in a location with porous soil to allow its roots to grow deep.
It’s a good idea to dig a deeper hole than necessary and return some of the soil back in, just to make sure its been loosened up before you plant your cacao tree.
Cacao trees also need protection from wind, so when you do plant them outdoors, make sure there is a line of other trees to help block strong ocean winds.
You will likely want to prune your cacao tree. Cacao trees, left in the wild, can grow to heights of 50 ft or more – which is much too high to be practical for cacao harvesting.
It’s advised to prune your tree to encourage a strong trunk and lots of horizontal branches for a wide canopy. You want a strong trunk because that is where the pods will grow (not at the end of branches).
Several things you should know about growing cacao:
- It does not grow true to seed
- It is not self pollinating, so you should aim to plant at least 4 trees in order to help the blossoms become pods
- The cacao tree is not prolific – rather, the opposite: cacao blossoms are incredibly small and only tiny insects (not bees) can pollinate the blossoms. Your tree may have as many as 5000 blooms, but only give 20 pods with seeds.
Seeing bees around your trees is a sign the bees are collecting nectar – but it does not mean pollination. These insects are too large to effectively pollinate cacao flowers.
So, what insect can? The humble, tiny blossom midge! Thankfully, these are found all over Hawaii. One way to encourage them to go to your cacao trees is by scattering the remaining cuttings of banana plants (i.e. trunks of the plant, cut in discs) around your cacao trees, where midges often lay their eggs.
Some homesteaders have had success with hand-pollinating their cacao blossoms, but I have a feeling they use very small instruments and have a lot more patience than I do.
Cacao produces pods year-round, but you may discover more fruits are ready after the rainy season.
Pods are ready to harvest when they have reached their full size (approx 10-12 inches in length) and are yellowish or slightly red in color. The seeds inside will rustle a little when shaken (an unripe pod will be more firm and all the seeds will be secure, with no movement).
You will need to hand-harvest your cacao pods and cut them from the trunk of the tree with shears. Don’t pull them off, because you could damage the bark and then negatively affect the growth of the new blossoms or pods in that location.
From Pod To Chocolate
Now, making your own chocolate from the seeds of cacao is pretty complex, so I cannot get into it in this post. Thatʻs best set aside for another post on its own.
The chocolate that you know and love comes from the fermented, dried, roasted cacao seeds (beans) once they are removed from the pod.
But, before that, you’ve got to grow the (soil and sun-sensitive) cacao tree and hope the pretty little blossoms get pollinated by tiny midges to turn into pods. It’s not an easy thing, but it sure does make me appreciate chocolate a lot more!
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