So You Want to Grow Cacao?

Cacao, a New World native, is one of the more alluring trees on the planet. Not only is it the source of something really delicious to eat, but it is also ornamental, producing colorful podlike fruits directly on the trunk and older branches of the tree. Folks in southern Florida have long admired cacao from afar, but its cold sensitivity has been a barrier to growing it locally.

But our climate has changed sufficiently since the infamous Christmas freeze of 1989 that cacao can be cultivated in southern Florida, provided that a few extra steps are taken. Much of the remainder of this article is drawn from observations and recommendations found in Making Cacao Growing a Piece of Cake, by Noris Ledesma, Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and in Cocoa (Chocolate Bean) Growing in the Florida Home Landscape, by Jonathan Crane, Carlos Balerdi, and Gene Joyner of the University of Florida IFAS Extension system.

Theobroma cacao grows best in a moist, still environment. Consequently, in southern Florida it is important to select a partially-shaded planting site that is also protected from wind. Given the poor quality of our native soils, it is best to excavate a large hole and fill it with a mix of peat moss and sand. While this technique goes against the general recommendation not to amend a planting hole, it is an exception that is essential to achieving success with cacao. It not only lowers soil pH, but creates excellent drainage. Enough moisture should be provided year-round to prevent roots from drying out.

A cacao tree takes approximately four years to start bearing fruit. When a flower is produced, a pod will take 5-7 months to develop fully. Pods ripen to a wide range of colors and patterns, including stripes. Because some young cacao plants do not self-pollinate, a single tree may produce few or no pods, though they will still develop into ornamentally attractive specimens. To enhance pollination and pod production, it is best to plant more than one tree.

Dr. Ledesma recommends a couple of methods for providing cold protection. One is to cover young trees entirely with a blanket or large cardboard box. The other is to water the soil around the tree thoroughly during the day on which a cold weather event begins, because moist soil more successfully absorbs solar radiation than dry soil; the stored heat will be released during the night. But even with conscientious protection by owners, the combination of cold temperatures, low humidity and high winds during the winter will lead to the browning of leaf margins, so that should not discourage growers.

Cacao can become a 25-30 ft. tree at maturity, but if you wish to keep it short, prune it at the end of summer. Dr. Joyner et al. recommend that growers should let young plants reach 1-2 ft. before considering pruning. If no branching has occurred by that time, they should prune away the top to encourage branching. Later pruning should be done with the goal of limiting the tree to just three or four main branches.

Theobroma cacao is available from Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3-gal. and 7-gal.  containers.

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