The cacao is not a tall tree, growing to between thirteen and thirty-two feet if cultivated on a plantation and twice as tall growing wild in the Ecuador Amazon Rainforest. The cacao flowers grow on the tropical tree’s trunk and lower branches, a profusion of delicate, mostly white blossoms. Only a few of the flowers bear fruit, starting when the tree reaches four or five years of age and peaking within the next five years. The cacao trees of Ecuador produce an average of between thirty and forty pods a year which take six months to ripen. The huge, pendulous pods, attached by thick, short stems, give the tree an exotic appearance. A Theobroma cacao tree makes a memorable photo of your Ecuador tours to show friends back home who may not know that chocolate grows on such trees.
Cacao trees that live out their natural life span in the wild, may last as long as 200 years, and under cultivation, only a tenth the time. The trees that bear the fruit comprising most of Ecuador’s commercial cacao crop are susceptible to insect infestations and devastating fungal diseases with ominous names such as witch’s broom, black pod disease and frosty pod disease.
Besides worry over insects, cacao farmers must contend with larger species, including monkeys, squirrels and birds that enjoy the sweet pulp of the cacao and discard the nasty-tasting seeds. That farmers must compete with a variety of cacao-loving wildlife is sometimes not bad for industry. Yes, if in getting to the pulp, the creatures injure the beans, the seeds will decay. But beans that fall unscathed to the ground, a destination they would not have reached encased in the pod, may generate another cacao tree.
Visitors who travel to Ecuador will see Theobroma cacao trees growing on farms and plantations from the coast towards Andes, from Guayas Province north to Esmeraldas Province, and on Ecuador Amazon tours, growing wild along river banks.