Bob and Pam Cooper acquired more than 1,800 cacao trees in Holualoa over a decade ago and established the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory. They’ve been processing 100 percent Hawaii-grown cacao into chocolate products ever since. Bob also grows and sells cacao trees, encouraging others to grow this valuable crop. West Hawaii now has many cacao growers and several budding artisanal chocolate makers.
Cacao originated in the Amazon and Orinoco River basins of Ecuador and Brazil, and has been cultivated in Central and South America for thousands of years. Theobroma, the genus of the cacao tree, translates to “food of the gods” and the resulting chocolate was once reserved solely for the pleasure of Aztec kings.
Today, cacao growing and chocolate making is a global industry, but with more local growers and those making chocolate with locally grown ingredients, localvores can satisfy their chocolate urge with a reduced carbon footprint.
Cacao is a tropical rain forest tree and thrives in areas with temperatures above 50 degrees and about 60 inches of annual rainfall or good irrigation. It is especially well-suited to areas in Kona that get a cool afternoon cloud cover. You might consider adding a few cacao trees, if your growing conditions are suitable.
Cacao flowers and the pods that follow grow directly on the trunk and branches of the tree and usually appear within three years after planting. With nearly 50 seeds in a pod you can get a good crop going by planting out your first few pods. The seeds usually germinate within a month if planted in filtered sun with adequate water. Within five months seedlings should be ready to put into the ground. Planting them about 8 feet apart gives them room to branch as they mature.
Chinese rose beetles love to snack on young cacao leaves though the insect’s interest wanes as the tree ages. When trees are small, it is important to reduce rose beetle damage. Neem oil applied to the leaves and neem fertilizer at the base seem to discourage them.
In less than three years, the trees should be 4 or 5 feet tall and the first flowers will appear. If they are pollinated by the tiny midge fly, cacao pods will develop. For the next five months, the pods will mature under the protection of the tree’s large leaves. Immature cacao pods are most often green, red or purple. As they mature, their color may become more yellow or orange. The size and changing color are clues to ripeness. Experienced cacao farmers also determine maturity by tapping the pods. A mature pod usually expands beyond the tightly packed seeds and emits a hollow sound when tapped.
When fully ripe, the pod is ready to cut from the tree. Careful cutting to avoid injuring the bud on the tree will ensure other pods can grow in that area. After the pods are cut, it is important to keep them cool and to remove the beans within four or five days, before they start to dry. At this point, you can sell the pods to a chocolate maker or venture into the process yourself.
Cacao pods should appear directly on the trunk or branches of the tree within three years of planting. – nwfarmsandfood.com
Information on the processing of cacao is widely available, but first you want to clarify your desired results. Many who like the taste of very dark chocolate may be happy with simply “sweating” and drying the beans and enjoying the nibs the beans become. Taking it further requires study. On a tour at the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Co. you can see the entire professional process. Some smaller growers occasionally offer classes in artisanal chocolate production. Websites and books contain instructions for producing a variety of chocolate candies and other products. One technique can be found at “Making Chocolate Candy Bars” at 123life.com.
The One Island Sustainable Living Center is an educational nonprofit promoting interest and information about growing cacao and producing chocolate products locally. It is hosting a community event — Chocolate Chocolate! from 4 to 7 p.m. March 20 — where local cacao growers and chocolate producers will be featured. Prepaid tickets will be sold for tastings and include chocolates, raw cacao products and ice cream as well as a savory chocolate dish. Displays of cacao body care products, live music and local artwork will also fill the center’s pavilion in Honaunau. For information and reservations, visit one-island.org/hawaii
Tropical gardening helpline
Laurence asks: My young lemon tree has not flowered or fruited in the last year. What can I do to encourage it to produce?
Answer: Citrus trees do not usually reach full production until they are about five years old. Depending on what kind of tree you have and its age, the lack of flowering and fruiting may be normal. A grafted tree purchased from a garden shop may have come with fruit on it. This early fruiting should have been removed because its production in a young tree can rob the plant of the nutrition and energy it needs to grow.
If you think your tree is old enough to be productive and has no signs of insect or disease problems, take a look at your cultural practices. This includes placement in a favorable location as well as supplying the proper amount of water and nutrition.
If the tree did not receive adequate water in last year’s drought, it may still be recovering from the shock. On the other hand, citrus trees will not produce well if the soil they are growing in does not drain water well. If it is planted in a lawn or other area that gets lots of irrigation, the roots may be too wet. Citrus trees also produce better when grown in a location that gets good sun exposure. If it’s getting too much water or not enough sun, consider moving it to an area where the roots can dry out a bit between waterings and where it gets at least six hours of sun each day.
Young citrus trees need a good supply of nitrogen for growth and added potassium and micronutrients can help with flower and fruit production. Several citrus fertilizers are locally available and are the best choice for a lemon tree. Adding organic matter such as compost can help as well. A light layer of mulch will help retain moisture in a hot, dry location while encouraging microbial activity in the root zone.
The best idea is to do some testing before you waste time and money buying fertilizers, however. Call the local University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources office at 322-4892 or check its free publications list for information on taking soil and tissue samples for testing. You may need to add nutrients to your soil or modify the pH of the soil so your plant can properly absorb what it needs. Test results will give you this information.
In Hawaii, most citrus trees have a production peak in the winter, usually December through February. A production cycle is ending right now and some trees are starting to flower. If all of the conditions mentioned here are met you should see flowering in the next few months.
UH also has a free, downloadable publication about growing citrus trees. Check it out at ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/F_N-14.pdf.
Plant advice lines — consult with master gardeners and tropical gardening advisers from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays at the Kona Outdoor Circle at 331-2426 or 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays at the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service at 322-4892, and Tuesdays and Fridays at UH CES in Hilo at 981-5199.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, consultant and an organic farmer living in Captain Cook.