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.
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. Best of luck, and get growing!