Cacao Tree Guide: Growing Theobroma Cacao, Planting Tips, Care, ID Chart

Man holding a cacao pod wonders about a cacao tree, and if growing chocolate plant (cocoa bean, cacao fruit) is difficult as well as how to identify cacao trees (facts), planting and care tips for cacao seeds.

The cacao tree is responsible for producing one of the world’s most beloved treats and if they were able to be grown in a wider variety of environments, there would probably be one in every yard in America!

But the good news is, if you live in certain areas of the US or have a greenhouse, you can grow your own.

How fun would it be to make your own chocolate?

But, in case you want to learn more about this awesome tree, this complete guide explains everything you need to know, from how to identify a Cacao tree, to how to plant and care for one at your own home.

Cacao Tree Growing Zone

Cacao trees are not the hardiest bunch, and they need very specific conditions to thrive, namely lots of protection from the sun and wind. This is why they thrive so well in their natural habitat– the understory of warm rainforests.

The understory is below the canopy and above the forest floor, and this sweet spot offers them the protection from the elements they require. In the US, they can only be cultivated outdoors in growing zones 11-13, which include Hawaii, Puerto Rico, southern Florida, and southern California.4

If you don’t live in one of the planting zones that naturally support their cultivation, you can grow them in the warm, humid environment of a greenhouse. But because of their more ‘sensitive’ nature, this option will require more vigilant care.

Cacao Tree Growth Rate (Grow a Tree)

So, how long it takes to grow cacao tree, or how long does it take for a tree to grow? The tree grows relatively quickly and within 30 days of the seed sprouting, it can reach a foot high. But when it comes to actually maturing and producing pods, that typically takes about 5 years.

Best Growing Conditions for Cacao Tree

Cacao trees thrive best in areas with high humidity, relatively constant temperatures, lots of rain, and nitrogen-rich soil.

They need lots of protection from the sun and wind. It is also a must to know how to identify cacao tree.

Graphics with texts and images that shows the best growing conditions for cacao tree.

So, when to plant cacao tree for the best yield? Cacao trees can only be grown naturally outdoors in areas that are within 20 degrees north or south of the equator, with most trees being grown within 10 degrees.

How To Plant Cacao Seeds (Planting Tips for Cacao Tree)

To successfully plant cacao seeds and in growing a cacao tree from a seed, cutting, seedling, or even tree pollination, begin by selecting well-draining soil, providing ample sunlight, and maintaining a consistent watering schedule throughout the germination process.

Getting the Seed From Cacao Fruit

If you are taking seeds from a fresh cacao fruit, know they are only viable for about one to two weeks provided you are storing it in a cool–but not refrigerated–dark place. The sooner you plant them the better.

The shell of cacao fruit is very hard, and you can break it open by hitting it against a really hard surface like concrete or cutting through it with a very sharp knife. Before planting a cacao seed, you must peel away the white outer pulp that surrounds it, or you can eat it since it is edible.5

The pulp has a sweet and sour taste.

Growing a Cacao Tree From a Seed

Once you have removed the pulp from the seeds, put them in a shallow container and cover them with a very small amount of water. For about 3 or 4 days, run them under water and gently rub them to loosen the remaining remnants of the pulp.

After, put fresh water in the container. You should see a white root at the wide end of the seed after 3 or 4 days.

You are now able to plant the seed, even if there is still some pulp on it. The seeds are very fleshy and rot easily if they are too wet.

Plant them flat or at an angle with the root end down. Do not cover them with soil.

The seeds should be planted at a depth at least twice the size of the bean. The soil mix should be very well drained and should consist of at least 50 percent coarse sand or perlite.6

Keep the soil uniformly moist but not waterlogged. Remember that cacao trees need high temperatures and lots of shade.

The germinating seeds should be kept at temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees and 50 to 70 percent shade. The germination process takes about two to three weeks.

As the shoot starts to emerge, the seed hull should fall off by itself, but it may not and you would need to carefully remove it to let the shoot emerge. Covering the plants with plastic wrap can help maintain the warmer temperatures the seed needs to germinate.

Photo of a cocoa plant with its yellow fruit still attached to the tree.

(Image: Kyle Hinkson11)

It is probably best to plant the seeds in cell trays or small pots. You can use grow bags or larger pots, but there is a risk of overwatering the seed and causing it to rot.

Planting in a smaller container also makes it easier to remove ungerminated, rotted, or abnormal seedlings when it comes time to transfer the plant to a larger container. Young cacao trees need to be under 30 to 50 percent shade.

The watering needs for cacao trees are simply making sure the soil has even moisture throughout without being waterlogged. Fertilize the tree every two to three months with slow-release fertilizer or a diluted 20-20-20 solution of fish emulsion or an equivalent substance.

Once the tree is about 10 to 12 months old, you can plant it outdoors if growing inside, move it to a larger container if necessary, or graft it.

Below you will find more specific guidance for its care once you have started growing a cacao tree from a seedling:

Cocoa Plant Care

For optimal cocoa plant care, ensure a well-draining soil, provide consistent watering, and protect the plants from extreme temperatures.

Sun and Temperature Needs

How much sunlight does a cacao tree need each day? The answer is not too much actually.

Their natural habitat in the understory of the rainforest is not a sunny one, and they can survive with as little as three hours of light a day. While they naturally grow in areas with lots of shade, they tolerate the sun well so long as it isn’t so hot their leaves are being scorched.

Cacao trees are extremely sensitive to colder temperatures and their sweet spot for thriving is between 65 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. So long as their moisture needs are met, they can typically tolerate higher temperatures than this.

They cannot withstand frost or freezing temperatures in the slightest. Unless you live in the aforementioned warmest zones of the US, growing them indoors in a greenhouse is truly the only option.

If they are in temperatures below 40 degrees, they will likely die or at the very least become seriously damaged.

Water and Humidity

Cacao trees need humid, hot environments, which explains why they thrive so well in their natural habitat of the rainforest. They get more than their fair share of moisture and rain there.

Your tree will need deep watering at least once a week to maximize fruit production. A good rule of thumb for watering a tree like this is if the top inch is dried out, it needs more watering.

Giving it one to two inches of water by way of slowly drenching the soil is best. Creating a humid environment is important.7

Misting the cacao leaves will raise the humidity level around the tree. A humidifier can also create a more moist environment.

Humid conditions are very important for cacao trees. Hot and humid is good; hot and dry is bad.


While cacao trees need moist environments to thrive, too much water is really bad for them as you have read earlier. It will rot the roots.

So the best soil will be good at retaining moisture evenly throughout but also well-draining. A good option for evenly moist, well-draining soil is a mixture of potting soil with coco coir or peat moss.

Cacao does well with a range of soil Phs but will thrive best in slightly acidic mixtures. Before planting the tree, place copious amounts of organic matter and compost on the top 4 to 8 inches of the soil.

Mulching around trees is always helpful too. Place a wood chip mulch around the base, keeping it away from the trunk.


Younger types of trees need to be fertilized twice a year–once in the spring and once in the fall. Fertilizers higher in nitrogen can boost the growth of a young cacao tree.

Once the tree reaches maturity–about five years of age–you do not need the nitrogen-rich soil any longer since its role is to promote the growth of the foliage. At this point, you want the tree’s energy to go into forming fruits and flowers.

Cacao plants need lots of nutrition so an organic, balanced fertilizer is best. Mixing some compost into the soil annually may be beneficial as well.


Unlike many trees, pruning is not really a necessary part of caring for your cacao tree and keeping it healthy. The main reasons to prune would be controlling the size and shape.

Cacao trees can grow up to 30 feet typically, and once the trunk reaches five or six feet, it will begin branching out. At this point, you can begin pruning if you wish.

Growing a Cacao Tree From a Cutting

You can use stem cuttings to grow more trees.8 The best cuttings will have about five leaves and one or two cacao flower buds.

Put the cutting in a glass of water until you see the tiny white roots you did on the seed. This usually happens within a week, and at this time, place the cutting directly in the soil.

Within a few weeks, you will have a newly established tree.

Cacao tree or Cocoa tree

(Theobroma cacao)

Photo of the Cacao Tree in an oval frame on green background.
  • Family: Malvaceae
  • Genus: Theobroma
  • Leaf: Wider at the base then at the midpoint and tapers towards the top. Bright green up to 24 in long x 4 in wide
  • Bark: Smooth, dark brown and scaly
  • Seed: Cacao seeds are relatively large and surrounded by an edible, white pulpy substance.
  • Blossoms: Flowers all year round from the third year of life. Blossoms less than 1 cm long.
  • Fruit: Beans grow inside pods, and each pod has 20 to 60 beans
  • Native Habitat: Originated in the lowland forests of the Amazon and Orinoco River Basins. Now also cultivated in tropical environments such as certain parts of Asia and Western Africa.
  • Height: 15-25 feet
  • Type: Evergreen
  • Native Growing Zone: USDA zones 11-13

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Not Evaluated


History of Cacao Trees

It is believed the cacao tree evolved and where does cocoa beans come from or the origin of cacao is in the Upper Amazon region that includes present-day Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.1 Early Amerindians probably contributed to its spread northward across the Andes and Central America where it became heavily integrated into their diet and culture.

The current-day species of cacao may date back 15,000 years, while the original Theobroma may be millions of years old. In the 1500s the explorer Cortez landed in Mexico, where he found cacao strongly woven into the mythology and culture there.

Graphics with texts and images that shows how to identify cacao tree through its leaves, flower, seeds, and fruits.

It was consumed as a beverage mixed with maize and spices– by royalty, rich merchants, and warriors. The seeds and beans were used as currency.

The Spaniards modified the drink by adding cinnamon and replacing the maize with sugar. Over time, this popular drink, which they called chocolate spread through Europe.

10 Interesting Cacao Tree Facts

  1. Theobroma–the Latin name of the cacao tree–means ‘food of the gods’.2
  2. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations, cacao beans were used as currency. During the Aztec empire, quality beans had so much buying power, they spawned counterfeiters.
  3. The cacao tree produces flowers directly on its trunk and branches, rather than on new shoots. This unusual sprouting method is called cauliflory.
  4. Since the 1960’s the growing of cacao beans has tripled, especially in the tropical belt region.
  5. The first chocolate bar was not produced until 1848. Up until this time, chocolate was strictly consumed as a beverage.
  6. More than half of the world’s cocoa comes from only two countries: The Ivory Coast and Ghana.
  7. The cacao tree can live up to 100 years.
  8. The tree was given its scientific name in 1783 by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.3
  9. Because cacao grows best in the shade of larger trees, it is best suited for smaller farms. 80 to 90% of the world’s trees are grown on family-owned farms of seven acres or less!
  10. The peak growing period is about 10 years, with most trees only being able to produce marketable beans for about 25 years.

Harvesting Cocoa Beans

Cacao pods start out green and as they ripen, turn an orange-yellow shade. Harvesting at the right time is important.

Graphics with texts and images that shows the cocoa beans harvesting process which are fermentation, drying, and then storing.

If you wait too long, the seeds will begin to sprout inside the pod. Depending on the variety of cacao trees planted, a ripe seed will progress beyond the yellow shade it takes on as it starts ripening to a deeper shade of orange or red.

You will also be able to hear the beans rattling around a ripened pod. Each pod can contain up to 50 beans.

The pod is very hard and you will need to break it open with a mallet or hammer. You can eat the beans as is or roast them, but if you want to use them to make chocolate treats, there is a bit more to the process.

Fermentation and Drying

Fermentation is the first step in turning the beans into the variety of chocolate items so beloved the world over as it helps develop the flavor and aroma so familiar to us. This process occurs naturally as a result of the makeup of the beans, meaning you don’t need to do anything in particular to jumpstart the process.

Fermentation also helps kill any harmful germs or microorganisms that exist in the pod. Once you harvest the beans, you can wait up to a week before fermentation provided they have been stored in a cool, dark place.

There are a few different ways to ferment beans. Oftentimes, they are placed in buckets or mats with reeds or banana leaves laid on top to protect them.

As the beans ferment, the alcohol in them turns to lactic or acetic acid which seeps out of the holes in the bucket or through the mats. This process increases the flavor.

You don’t want the beans sitting in the acid too long though and over the course of the time it takes to ferment, you will move them to different boxes or mats. Because of this process of moving them, putting them in boxes may be easier.

If you don’t have reeds or banana leaves available to protect the beans, you can ferment them in an enclosed space that is between 70 and 85 degrees and has a humidity level of between 80 and 90 degrees. Cover the container in which you place them with a cloth to help regulate the humidity and temperature.

Stir the beans twice a day to ensure even fermentation. Fermentation can take anywhere from 2 days to a little over a week depending on the size of the beans.

Drying the Beans

Once the beans have been fermented, they must be dried in the sun. Put them on a board raised at least a few inches off the ground to promote airflow underneath them.

Thin boards are best for maximum airflow and drying on all sides of the bean. The drying process may take anywhere from five to 10 days.

In areas with high moisture levels, growers typically light a fire under the beans to help move this process along. When using fire to dry the beans, they must be rotated regularly to prevent burning.

This method can be challenging since you must carefully keep an eye on the fire to ensure the beans do not get too hot or smoky.

Storing Cacao Beans

Beans must be stored in a dry environment. If you are in a more humid location, good ventilation is really important as are humidity control tools.

Photo showing a cocoa fruit on top of a pile of coca bean.

(Image: Ákos Helgert10)

Cacao beans are very sensitive to changes in humidity levels because they absorb water from the air. The beans can also easily absorb odors and contaminants so be sure the area is free of both.

Keep the beans off the floor and away from the walls. Netting is a good idea to keep bugs out.

In the right conditions, cacao beans can be stored for years.

Cacao Tree Disease Prevention

Cacao trees are susceptible to damage from a number of sources such as fungi, viruses, and insects.9

Cacao Pod Rot

Diseases causing pod rot are the most destructive and result from a number of different fungi.

Black Pod Rot

This form of rot is caused by the fungus Phytophthora and spreads very quickly through the pods in conditions of low sunshine, excessive rain and humidity, and temperatures under 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms include translucent spots on the pod developing into dark, hard, small spots.

Within 14 days of initial symptoms, the entire pod will blacken and the tissue will die completely. Treatment consists of applying copper-based fungicides, along with systemic fungicides, and constant removal of diseased pods.

Trees should be well-spaced to maximize air circulation between them.

Frosty Pod Rot

This second form of pod rot is courtesy of the fungus Moniliophthora rorer, and may also be referred to as watery pod rot or Monilia pod rot.13 This disease only strikes actively growing pods, causing brown spots that rapidly expand to cover the entire surface of the pod.

The dry and powdery nature of the fungal spores means they spread easily by way of water, wind, or movement of the pods. This disease is more commonly seen during periods of heavy rain.

Because this fungus is more likely to strike during the wet season, planting cocoa trees that produce pods during the dry season is the best defense. Like other fungal infections, it will spread very easily among the pods so diseased ones should be removed immediately.

Copper-containing fungicides are the best treatment.

Witches’ Broom

This form of pod rot is from the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa and causes the cacao plant to sprout large numbers of shoots and brooms from the plant, and large numbers of branches that do not produce any fruit.12 It distorts the development of the pods, making them unusable.

It is more prevalent in areas with very high humidity–greater than 80%. The most effective way of keeping this fungus away from cocoa trees is regularly pruning away infected areas, which may not always be easy to see.

There are currently no fungicides available to treat it.

Viral Diseases Affecting the Chocolate Plant

Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV): Symptoms include red leaf veins especially in young leaves, swollen shoots and leaves, chlorotic (yellow) patches on leaves and next to leaf veins, mottled pods with fewer beans, mottled coloration, and swelling at the nodes or internodes of stems. The tree may experience defoliation, or continuously lose leaves until it dies.

Graphics that shows the different cacao tree pests and diseases such as pod rot, black pod rot, frosty pod rot, witches' broom, swollen shoot virus, mealybugs, mirids, and pod borer.

Black Pod Rot Image: Scot Nelson12, Frosty Pod Rot Image: Shahin Ali13, Witches’ Broom Image: Scott Bauer14, Swollen Shoot Virus Image: DiSnouk15, Pod Borer Image: Tiouraren16

CSSV is transmitted by mealybugs and isn’t native to cocoa trees. It spread from other trees that grew in the rainforests.

As someone planting their cocoa tree, you wouldn’t need to worry about this disease as much as it is only going to spread in an area like a plantation where multiple trees can infect one another.

Insects Affecting Chocolate Trees

Some of the common pests of the cacao tree include:

Cocoa Mealybugs

Besides carrying the aforementioned virus, the presence of coco mealybugs may damage the tree in other ways. They produce a waxy substance that can damage the tree.

They may attract other insects that will do their variety of damage. A colony of coco mealybugs may excrete substances that lead to large amounts of mold growth.

While employing their natural enemy the lady beetles to control their growth, the most effective means of controlling their population typically involve chemical pesticides.

Cocoa Mirids

The first sign of a cocoa mirids infestation is tiny puncture wounds on young pods and stems. These wounds quickly lead to tissue death, manifesting as black patches that develop into cankers, discolored bark, dead leaves and branches, and lack of fruit production.

The females lay their eggs in the bark of the tree and can lay up to 30 or 40 at a time. They are typically controlled with chemical treatments sprayed at specific times to target different stages of their development.

They are more likely to infest trees in direct sunlight. Planting other trees along with the cacao tree that is also host to these insects, such as mango, guava, cashew, cotton or tea will also increase the risk of infestation.

Cocoa Pod Borer

Cocoa pod borers make holes in the cocoa pod husk by way of insect larvae entering and exiting it.14 The female can lay anywhere from 100 to 200 eggs on the surface of the pod.

This leads to problems such as premature and uneven ripening of the pods, and seeds sticking together from the insect-eating the surrounding tissue, making it hard to remove them from the pod when ripe. Sleeving the pod in a plastic bag while it matures protects the plant from borers.

This is typically done when the pods reach 3 to 4 inches. Weaver ants and black ants are natural enemies of borers.

Putting small amounts of carbamate or contact pyrethroid on the underside of the leaves may also keep these insects away. Cacao trees are probably not the easiest tree to cultivate.

But provided you give it the proper growing conditions climate-wise and tend to its very particular needs such as moisture levels in the soil, you may be able to grow your very own Cacao tree, and make your very own delicious chocolate treats!

Frequently Asked Questions About Cacao Tree

Does Cacao Have Any Health Benefits?

In its raw state, chocolate has over 300 nutritional compounds and is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods on the planet! It contains a number of minerals such as magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, sulfur, copper, calcium, and iron. Cacao is also rich in most of the B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols, protein, fiber, and the very heart-healthy monounsaturated fat oleic acid.

Why Do Fresh Seeds Not Taste Like Chocolate?

Fresh seeds contain the precursors of substances that produce edible chocolate and the flavor we associate with it. But in order to unlock the production of these chemicals, the cacao seeds must undergo the aforementioned fermentation process once they are harvested.


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3Laiskonis, M. (2019, August 19). Raising Theobroma. Institute of Culinary Education. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

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10Photo by Ákos Helgert. Pexels. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

11Photo by Kyle Hinkson. Unsplash. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

12Cacao black pod rot Photo by Scot Nelson / Public Domain Dedication (CC0). Cropped and Resized. Flickr. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

13Cacao pod with symptoms of frosty pod rot Photo by Shahin Ali / Public Domain. Resized. USDA. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

14Crinipellis perniciosa mushroom Photo by Scott Bauer / Public Domain. Resized. USDA. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

15Cocoa-tree showing swollen shoot diseased stem Photo by DiSnouk / CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Resized. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

16Dorsal view of cocoa pod borer Photo by Tiouraren / CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Resized. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from <>

17Species Information Image: A Fruit Growing on a Tree Photo by Kiyoshi. (2022, December 3) / Unsplash License. Cropped and added text, shape, and background elements. Unsplash. Retrieved February 16, 2024, from <>