Growing chocolate trees indoors? Believe it or not, it is possible, even in cold climates!
Vermont’s not exactly known for its tropical weather, but even with our long cold winters, you can still grow and harvest your own chocolate indoors. The cacao trees below were grown from a pod harvested from New Hampshire and germinated in my Vermont home, both zone 4.
The New Hampshire parent tree grown by a friend is about 6 feet tall, and produces a crop of 2 to 5 pods per year, blooming in the summer and ripening mid-winter. That’s not bad when you consider a tree growing outdoors in the tropics produces only 20 pods a year.
On our homestead, we love the novelty of growing our own tropical edibles. We’ve already had success with homegrown ginger, turmeric, mango trees, coffee, vanilla, lemon trees…why not add chocolate to the mix?
A few years back, I asked my cacao-growing friend to save me a pod. Mid-February, I got a call that my pod was ripe and ready to go. When I arrived, I found that they’d literally written my name on it to prevent anyone else from claiming it.
Since not everyone has a friend that happens to be growing cacao, you can order your own cacao pod online here, and they can be eaten fresh or used for planting.
If you want to skip the germination steps, and get right to growing your own tree indoors, cacao trees are available here.
A bit of nomenclature, Theobroma Cacao is the tree name, spelled cacao. The processed chocolate, or cocoa mass, switches the last two letters and adds an o at the beginning. So a cacao tree is needed to grow your own cocoa or chocolate.
It’s important that the seeds are fresh, inside an intact pod. Once the pod is opened they rapidly spoil, and they’ll only germinate while fresh.
Seeds cannot be dried and stored like garden vegetable seed packets. As a tropical plant, in nature, the seeds would be kept warm and moist, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dry down like a package of typical garden seeds.
Each cacao bean is coated in a sticky-sweet coating that tempts tropical animals to crack open the tough pods and gorge on the interior nectar. The beans themselves are then discarded as the animal moves throughout the canopy, planting the next generation of cacao trees.
The first step in growing chocolate from seed is to crack open the seed pod, which is roughly 1 centimeter thick. It takes a good butcher knife or chef’s knife and quite a bit of elbow grease, so be careful with your fingers.
Avoid cutting into the seeds, because they’re surprisingly soft, gummy, and fragile. Even a small nick will inhibit germination, so just very gently hold them in your mouth as the sweet gelatin dissolves around the pods.
In nature, animals eat the white pulp from around the seeds and carefully avoid eating the seeds themselves. You know how chocolate is supposed to be toxic to dogs? Well, those very same seeds aren’t all that tasty to rainforest creatures either, they just eat the sweet pulp and drop the seeds to germinate.
Whole cacao beans or cacao nibs you buy from health food stores have been first fermented to remove the white nectar around the beans, and then dried and roasted to get a hard, crunchy texture.
To prepare the seeds, you’ll need a few adventurous friends. I invited over just about everyone I knew when we cut it open because it’s not every day that you get to taste fresh grown raw chocolate.
The most efficient way to clean and prepare the seeds is by placing them into your mouth and sucking off the white cacao nectar. It’s sweet and fruity, and in the group I assembled, every single person loved it.
In the tropics, they ferment it into a liquor, and since the coating spoils so quickly, if you don’t grow your own your only chance to taste it fresh would involve a very expensive plane ride.
For germination, the seeds want to be kept warm and moist.
My drafty 1850’s schoolhouse in February didn’t seem like it fit the bill, but I created a hot water bottle for them with a Ziploc bag filled with warm water, wrapped in a wet towel. I then placed the freshly cleaned seeds in a wet paper towel, and put that on top of the water-filled bag.
I put the whole setup into my oven with the oven light on for a small amount of extra heat. After just a few days, the seeds had begun to germinate and I transferred them to the soil.
With this method, I had a roughly 50% germination rate. Not bad for a cheap hacked setup.
If you’re investing in buying a cacao pod and having it shipped to you, you might as well try a small countertop seed germination setup or at least invest in a seedling heat mat to better ensure success.
Once you’ve got healthy cacao trees, either by germinating your own cacao pods or by starting with a live cacao tree, all you have left to do is wait.
In nature, cacao trees are a zone 10 plant, so they want to be kept warm, but they will grow just fine at room temperature in a normal house. Keeping them consistently between 65 and 70 degrees is sufficient for them to thrive.
They’re an understory plant, so filtered light indoors is actually ideal, and they grow wonderfully even in northern climates near a south-facing window or in a sunroom.
It takes 5-6 years from germination to see your first crop. The flowers will appear directly out of the stem, and though the plant will produce hundreds of tiny flowers, only a few will actually go on to produce cacao pods even in ideal conditions.
The fruit will begin to form and will grow slowly for 6 to 8 months. Harvest happens in February or March for northern-grown indoor cacao trees.
Be sure to have plenty of friends on hand for the harvest, to share in your success, and help you enjoy the sticky sweet cacao seed coating. When you harvest, you can continue to propagate from the seeds, or you can try eating the fresh raw seeds themselves.
They have a unique flavor, and texture, somewhat like a very firm grape or kiwi.
It really is a rare treat to get to enjoy your own fresh, raw chocolate from a homegrown tree.
Making your own chocolate from raw cacao pods is a bit involved, but it’s well worth the effort. Here are my instructions for making chocolate from scratch.
Best of luck, and get growing!
Plant Growing Guides
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I really want to try this, but I know I’m moving in two years and it would be hard to move the tree with me. I guess I’ll just have to wait a couple more years.
This is great. I love chocolate! Can the trees be grown in a container?
Of course! Unless you live in zone 10 or 11, you have to grow them in containers.
Can you tell how to harvest the sticky coating from the seeds to make your own cacao liquor? And how to roast the seeds upon harvest to make them into cacoa powder? Also…how often do you have to fertilize your cocoa tree ?
I have to comment on something I see a lot but I think is a misunderstanding of the results of a species evolution. Ashley said the seeds want to be warm and moist and the same thing about the tree. Neither the free nor seeds want anything; either they, germinate or not, thrive, survive or die. They aren’t pleasure seeking anymore than evolution had a goal, reached a spot it was supposed to and sat back, finished.
It’s just a figure of speech. People will often interchange the words ‘need’ and ‘want’. It is a more endearing way to refer to a non sentient creature by humanizing it, in a sense. Often times people who do this are better care takers because it elicits a more nurturing affect towards the plant.
Very well said!
Lighten up you took that entirely too 🧐 serious
Aren’t the leaves on cocoa trees how people get cocaine?
Good question, but no, it’s not. That’s a totally different plant. Cocoa is the plant that produces chocolate (Theobroma cacao- also called the cacao tree and the cocoa tree). The plant that produces cocaine is in the Erythroxylum genus, such as Erythroxylum coca. It’s a totally different thing.
Here is Cocoa (Chocolate) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao
Here is Coca (Cocaine) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca
Could you actually make chocolate from these trees instead of just eating the nibs?
In theory, yes. They’re first fermented, then dried, then roasted, then ground and processed into chocolate. You could run through the whole process on a countertop if you wanted. It takes quite a few chocolate pods to make a meaningful amount of chocolate though, and I really like getting to taste and eat the raw fresh beans.
Hi Ashley! good work! I,ve got little cocoa plants as well, but I’ve never achieve that big!! I can you tell me the way you get the warm & humid ambient?
Hi Gary, We actually have moisture issues in our house since our house is super-insulated and very tight. In the winter it’s actually a bit too moist in here, since we heat with radiant rather than a wood stove and all the windows are shut. If you have a sunny spot near your kitchen or bathroom, that’s one way to do it. The one in the picture isn’t mine, that’s the parent tree, mine’s not that big (yet).
I have a young cacao plant in an 8″ pot indoors in northern California. I keep it near a window but shaded by other potted plants with a bowl of water near it for humidity. Leaf tips are turning beige and dead. Rest of plant still looks okay. Any advice?
This is normal. Especially in drier environments. In their normal environment, humidity is typically around 90 or so. But they tolerate lower humidity, thankfully. New leaves remain fresh and perfect for a while, but eventually get tip-burn and perhaps even a bit of edge-burn as they age. Yearling leaves will finally yellow and fall off. But if the plant is well cared for, you’ll have plenty of replacement leaves.
Amazing that you are growing this great plant . I’mthinking about doing so, too.
I’m just wondering if you need to heat up the roots too (maybe through an underground pipe system (GAHT)?)
An underground pipe system might work if you’re in a very warm area already, but up here in the frozen north, ours live indoors, no question about it.
Which species of cocoa tree is best to use indoors? I’ve been researching them and it seems like they grow way too tall to fit in my house, is there a specific tree you used?
That is a darn good question. I’m honestly not sure, it’s just a seed I got from a friend’s tree…and I don’t know the exact species.
Michael J. Vanecek
The color ot the cotyledons is helpful in determining a ballpark ID. If they are dark purple, they will likely be of the var. Forastero persuasion. If they are pink, Trinitario is likely. And if the cotyledons are white, they are likely to be of the Criollo variety. All three have similar growing habits, though Criollo produces less and are a bit more delicate than Forastero. Criollo does produce a superior chocolate, however, requiring less fermentation and producing more subtle flavor notes than the more bitter Forastero. But Forastero can product excellent chocolate too.
So I remember them being purple, but this was a long time ago when they sprouted. There is actually a picture in there that has the cotyledons in it, and they’re not white that’s for sure.
Like most trees, do you have to pollinate for it to produce?
Thanks! I can’t wait to try!
Reading online it says in no uncertain terms that you need 2 trees to get fruit, but I know for a fact that my friends only have one. Maybe they have a freak tree, but they don’t have a cross pollinator. They also don’t hand pollinate it, but they do have a large greenhouse so it’s possible it’s insect pollinated in there. If you’re raising it in your house I’d hand pollinate the flowers with a paintbrush just to be sure. You’ll need a very small one, they’re really incredibly small flowers, a bit smaller than a green garden pea.
Many cacao varieties are self-incompatible (hence the warning that a minimum of 2 trees is needed), but there are self-compatible varieties also, so presumably your friends have one of these.
That’s likely true, since their’s fruits every year without a second tree.
Did you notice you have a huge bug infestation in the flower photo? I found using a toothpick and smooshing those bad bugs to be very therapeutic.
I’ve read different info regarding whether cacao needs to be hand pollinated. Does it?
The tree these came from is not hand pollinated, it’s basically ignored and fruits every year none the less. I’ve also since heard that many cocao trees require a second pollinator, but that some are self-fertile. These beans came from a tree that’s growing alone, so perhaps lucky. I’m not sure how common self-fertile trees are, but these were not hand pollinated. That said, they’re greenhouse grown and there are pollinators that come into the greenhouse. If it were completely indoors, hand pollination might not be a bad idea.
Michael J. Vanecek
I have been growing…and killing… cacao trees for perhaps a couple of decades. I’ve finally got four Forastero trees that have survived me well enough. I have been shuttling them indoors for the winter, and back out under mulberry trees for the summer for their first years. They flower profusely, but even under the mulberries, the environment is just too dry for their preferred pollinators to flourish. Except for this year. Got a single pod – even though the trees did not flower as richly. The pod did not survive, as expected – most pods die, and something chewed on the pod’s stem. But I am very happy that pollinators found that flower. It means more pods will follow.
I have just moved my trees into my new greenhouse, where I hope to keep a moister environment to attract and maintain a healthy ecosystem of pollinators – ants and midges – to hopefully actually get some pods to mature. We shall see. They are growing with my tubs of vanilla orchids, coffee trees, a banana tree, lemongrass, pineapples, etc so it will be pretty tropical in there.
I am to the point, however, that I need to prune these trees. That is my next biggest challenge. They’ve grown quite ungainly and need to be cut back hard. I may start with one to be sure I don’t kill off all my Forasteros. For containers, I want lower branching and to maintain a tighter canopy. I did have one tree completely defoliate and return to health at one time, so I am hopeful that stumping the tree will result in new growth. I’ll wait until the tree is in vigorous growth mode before cutting to hopefully see a faster suckering.
I also have several Criollo saplings that are still in their tree-pots indoors. They’ll get a greenhouse next year when I pot them up into larger containers. And likewise, I plan on topping them and getting a few thicker branches trained to manage their canopy for greenhouse life.
When you cut the pods, consider just cutting the rind around the pod, then cracking it open. Then you can pull out the seed-mass intact with no damaged seeds.
For Forastero seeds – the ones that are purple or dark purple when cut – you can put those seeds in a gallon ziplock if you only have a few, or a tub if you have a lot, and left to ferment for a few days in a warm but shaded area. Criollo seeds are white when cut – they require little or no fermentation since the seeds contain few bitter tannins. Then you rinse them off, and dry them in the sun, turning them often. You could try drying in the oven set on low – but you don’t want to cook them. Once dry, you can roast them in a Behmor coffee roaster, then shell them and grind the nibs with some cane sugar to make your coffee – there are melangers available for that stage.
Michael J. Vanecek
Oops – “…some cane sugar to make your coffee” should be “…some cane sugar to make your chocolate”
Hi, I just got a Theobroma cacao tree today. It has already been started and is in a one gallon pot. I have put it into a new pot. So one of my questions is I am in a condo with a 10 foot ceiling so this will be a indoor plant for ever. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. So how and when do you start to trim it so it won’t get so tall I can’t take care of it?
Also a couple of the leaves look like they are either burned or may have gotten eaten by bugs at the store where I purchased it from in Florida. And again I literally have only had the plant about 2 hours. But if it is bugs or they are brunt do I trim them off or wait awhile to see what happens. And also does it need any sun? I have three big windows in the front of my condo. And I am wondering if I should move it out of there. It’s not in direct light it’s over to the side of the small window.
And finally I don’t have control of the humidity in the building or in my unit. Would it be a good idea to use a humidifier near the tree? Thanks so much. Jane
Hello. I just bought a small cacao tree and i was wondering what kind of soil did you use through out the potting process?.
You should be able to use whatever potting medium you have on hand. Nothing special needed there.
I’ve had my tree growing in a southwest facing room in Maine for three or four years now. Unfortunately it has reached the ceiling. I’d like to top it to make it manageable again but I’m a bit nervous. I’d hate to kill it. Do you have any advise or encouragement that won’t be its fate?
I am not sure about the best way to go about pruning it. I did a quick internet search and found quite a few articles and even some videos on it. I would just search and look at several resources to get a good idea of how to go about pruning your tree.
I click the “ order your own cacao pod online here”it turned to Amazon but with invalid page 😂
Oh no. You might want to just try manually typing in “cacao pod” and see if anything pops up.
Hello, I just want to say that as a fellow Vermonter I have really enjoyed reading your posts. I have been self teaching about the plants on my Property and how to use them. I have learned a lot from you and I thank you!
You’re welcome. So glad you’re enjoying the posts.
I’m going to grow my first cacao tree. I live in Northeastern Washington state, zone 5b. We’re experiencing unusually high temps right now, between 105-112°, with night lows around 70°. Humidity is in the 40s to low 50s. I’ve read some of the posts here which have been very informative.
Can someone please give me some advice on how I should proceed? Should I order my plant now or wait until the temps are closer to our norm in the 90s? Is there a book or other resources I can order to learn more before I even order the plant?
I know the cacao tree is a tropical plant and that where I live isn’t ideal for this plant, but if someone living in Vermont can successfully grow one, so can I! I’ve already figured out that I’ll have to grow this indoors in a container and provide it with humidity, especially in winter when the woodstove is going all day and night. As a caveat, can it be kept outdoors during these warm days if it’s provided with the necessary humidity and sunlight? Also, would woodland critters such as deer, squirrels, raccoons, birds, elk, moose, bears, chipmunks….be tempted to nibble on it?
Sunlight is scarce here come winter because we usually have lots of cloud cover much of the time. Are grow lights revommended?
Please assist….as a self-diagnosed “chocoholic”, this would be my greatest achievement off I could successfully grow and then harvest my own cacao beans (even if I have to wait 5-6 years to do so!).
They are actually an understory plant so filtered indoor light is ideal, but you might need to supplement a bit with a grow light if you don’t get a lot of indoor light. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t go ahead and order your plant. I was able to find this book on Amazon by Byron E. Martin and Laurelynn G. Martin Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere: (like lemons, limes, citrons, grapefruit, kumquats, sunquats, tahitian oranges, barbados … black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, and more…) I haven’t read it, but it looks like it has some good reviews. I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be kept outdoors. I move many of my tropical plants outdoors in the summertime. It is certainly possible that the wild critters may want to nibble it though so just be aware of that possibility.
Thank you for your reply! I can’t wait to get started!
Thank you! I think this might be the best response yet, and I have already ordered the E book. I just got some coffee plants, i am awaiting my cacao, and i previously started a tangerine from seed. I also am actively working on growing a number of tropical trees (hopefully for bonsai) and can definitely benefit from a good guide book on growing tropical trees… in Brooklyn (no lie).
You’re very welcome.
My cacao trees grow indoors, in an east-facing bay window. That will change as I upgrade my growing environment and get them nearly totally on LED lighting. I am in the process of air-layering the tallest trees that have reached above my window, with the intent of planting those air-layers into hydroponic dutch buckets. The parents of those air-layers will follow suit pending the efficacy of the dutch-bucket system. All grown indoors where I can more closely control the environment.
I recommend LED grow-lights – especially in the winter months with our short days. That will keep your tropicals growing over the winter. Otherwise, they’ll sulk and not grow much if at all for months of the year. I have mine on a timer with 16 hours on, 8 hours off.
Curry leaf tree - Wouter
That’s awesome. How did your air layering experiment go? Curious to hear about it, since I’m also planning to grow cacao trees, but to propagate them from air layers would be better on the long term, to get big trees faster.
PS I’m dutch and had to Google what a dutch bucket was, never heard about it!
Thanks, Ashley, for writing about this! Super informative and interesting. I have learned a lot reading it and might try a tree myself 🙂
You’re very welcome. So glad you enjoyed the post. Let us know if you decide to get a tree of your own.