Plant Profile: Cacao

There are few plants whose scientific name translates as “food of the gods,” but the Greek name for cacao—Theobroma cacao —does. It makes sense that this plant, famous for being the key ingredient in modern day chocolate, has become important for many cultures around the world.

Ethnobotany: The study of the relationships between people and plants.

Learn more about the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Ethnobotany program

The Origins of Chocolate

The history of cacao dates back thousands of years and has its origins in Mesoamerica. Ancient civilizations like the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec incorporated the cacao plant into their rituals and customs. Both the Aztec and Maya used the seeds as a form of currency. The Maya made a bitter beverage from the roasted and ground cacao beans. They mixed water, corn meal, honey, vanilla, and chili peppers into the cacao paste and then strained it back and forth in cups till there was a frothy layer on the top. The drink was enjoyed by all Mayan people, and was a part of important ceremonies such as marriages.

The Aztecs raised the value of cacao to an even greater level and its worth became akin to that of gold. The Aztecs believed that cacao had been given to them from the gods. It was a delicacy enjoyed mostly by the elite and military. Perhaps the most famous story is that of the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, who supposedly drank goblets of the bitter chocolate drink every day, sometimes from golden cups, as a display of wealth and power. It is from the Nahuatl language, which has the beverage called “chocolātl,” where we received the word, “chocolate.”

An illustration of cacao from the rare book collection of the Peter H. Raven Library

Chocolate Goes Global

When the Spanish came into contact with the civilizations of Central and South America, they saw how important a role cacao played in these cultures and they quickly sought to transport the plant and the seed pods back to Spain and the rest of Europe.

By the late 1500s, chocolate beverages were a favorite delicacy enjoyed at the Spanish court. As other countries like Italy and France also began exploring parts of the Americas, they began bringing back these precious cacao products as well. A century later, Spain was no longer the country with the monopoly on the chocolate market. Hot chocolate shops opened in France and England. Desserts made with chocolate gained popularity in Austria and Germany.

People began mixing things like sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla together to make the cacao taste sweeter. This began to change the way that chocolate tasted and reflects the varieties of chocolate that we are more familiar with today. When the machine that could grind large amounts of cacao beans together was invented in the 18th century, this made chocolate prices much more affordable. Chocolate products very quickly spread all over the world.

A Dark Side

However, not all of chocolate’s history is pleasant. It is important to know that historically as the demand for chocolate products began to rise in Europe and elsewhere, many cacao plantations were established in West Africa mostly with slave labor. Today, nearly 70% of cacao is still exported from West Africa, yet thankfully most of it is from ethically grown sources. It is always important to look for chocolate that says it comes from fairly traded or sustainably grown cacao beans. This will ensure that everyone, humans and nature alike, can enjoy the benefits of a delicious piece of chocolate.

“Crossing the river at Nsawam, Gold Coast” Photo from Cacao and chocolate: their history from plantation to consumer.

Cacao in our Collections

Cacao is represented in several of the Garden’s collections. There are two living specimens in the economic bed of the Climatron, near other edible plants such as jackfruit, papaya, and coffee. The biocultural collection contains samples of cocoa beans, chocolate bars, and other items made from cacao. And the Garden’s herbarium includes several specimens of Theobroma cacao and its close relatives.

Jessica Griffard

Research Specialist, William L. Brown Center

One Comment Add yours

  1. Katherine Wagner-Reiss says:

    Fascinating article! And thanks for the recommendation to look for sustainably grown and fairly traded cacao beans.

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