Since I’m fascinated with where food comes from, the next logical step in my ‘farm-to-table’ ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate adventures was to try growing my own cacao trees…in London!
It was a challenge, with the first hurdle being to get fresh pods back from Ingemann in Nicaragua through US customs. After enduring a good hours’ worth of questioning by a typically Texan border enforcement official, the pods were let through!
No sooner was I back on UK soil, then I was negotiating with Kings College Dietetics department to freeze dry two of the pods for display and educational purposes. As part of the freeze drying process the pods were sliced open and five beans fell out – two from a Nicalizo pod and three from a Chuno pod (I think).
Without doing any research into how to propagate cacao seedlings I wrapped the seeds, still coated in their little fleshy (mucilage) jackets, in soggy kitchen roll and popped them in some clear plastic containers covered in cling film, left them in a warm part of the bedroom with soft natural light…and forgot about them. Every now and then I’d remember, and excitedly splash a little water on the kitchen roll, just enough to keep them damp. When it came to move house (again) I checked the containers – they had all gone mouldy, as result of, I assume, not removing the sticky pulp from the outside of the seeds. So I chucked them out, being sure to separate the kitchen roll from the containers, but to my surprise all the seeds had germinated and all but one had begun successful root systems! They seemed very happy! Now I think about it, staying in their fleshy jackets, staying moist, but not soaking, and at a relatively warm even temperature would be how they would germinate in the wild. Most reports online state that the fleshy jackets should be removed before planting, but I worried this may damage the delicate seed underneath the membrane and, possibly, remove some of the nutrients the seedlings would need to grow. Besides, a little bit of mould never hurt anyone.
Once they were ready to be planted I did remove their little jackets to completely eliminate any chance of mould being transferred to their soil. I did this with tweezers and it was much easier than removing before germination as they were already split and withered.
Later research told me that once the pods are cracked it is essential the seeds are planted as soon as possible. They die if not planted within 10 hours and / or if they get too hot / cold or dry out. I kept mine for about a week until I had suitable containers, but lucky for me they were in a sealed plastic bag at a reasonable temperature.
Germinating these bad boys had taken about a month, and was the most chocolate-related excitement I’d had since the trip to Nicaragua, but I wanted to ensure the best chance of success for the new residents, so I contacted James and Chantal at Rococo Chocolates and asked their advice for potting on germinated cacao seeds.
I prepared the potting mix according to Chantal’s instructions as best I could – my mix was two parts good quality compost and one part fine gravel or sand, nice and moist (if you can blend 3 parts soil to 2 parts organic matter and fine gravel even better!). You are best planting out new seedlings in a decent size (5cm diameter) plastic pots to begin with (as time goes on you will eventually have to re-pot, usually when you start to see roots poking out the bottom of your pots – implying the plant is becoming root-bound).
The advice is for even bigger (10cm diameter) pots, if you can manage it, but we don’t all have the luxury of a large kitchen, and I’ve found 5cm works just fine. This may seem extreme, but these babies will grow quickly and teeny tiny pots like I had in the beginning will stunt the root system and upset the plant – I lost two of mine as a result of pots being too small, and ceramic. You’re also best using plastic pots as this helps retain moisture and regulate the temperature, ceramic pots will leech out some of the moisture and can cool much more quickly than plastic. Another way to create an environment similar to that of the rainforest is to ‘bag up’ the pots by covering with a freezer bag or cling film (surround/glad wrap) until you start to see little shoots poking through the soil.
To help ensure happy seedlings and saplings, don’t pull off the cacao seed ‘halves’ on either side of the stems, the plants need these for their nutrient supply. If a seed half is beginning to go mouldy, you can gently remove the corners that are mouldy with nail clippers / tweezers, then isolate and quarantine the plant to ensure it doesn’t spread mould spores to its siblings. Removing the whole of the seed will most likely cause your plant to die.
Your ideal ambient temperature is around 23 decrease celsius (73.4 fahrenheight), but be sure not to go any lower than 19 celsius (66.2 fahrenheight) or above 30 celsius (86 fahrenheight) even when you have established plants.
Now at 6 months on I have two young healthy cacao saplings that I keep in a mini greenhouse from Ikea. Though at the rate they are growing they will soon have to fend for themselves on the window sill. I mist once or twice a week with a filtered room temperature water, and feed every 2 weeks with a diluted liquid tomato feed (a seaweed based feed is also highly recommended). They are positioned to get dappled sunlight for most of the day, but now the trees outside have dropped their leaves I drape a fine scarf over part of the greenhouse to replicate dappled sunlight and prevent scorching from too much sun (not that this is often a problem in the UK, but it’s good to take precautions).
It looks like there are two varietals, as one has red baby leaves and red nodes at the base and tip of its stems, the other is just completely green. Only time will tell if these bad boys survive and if they are in fact two varietals. For now I am just enjoying watching their progress, happy for the fact I have successfully managed to grow a little bit of the tropics in my kitchen in London.
This is just a guide for people trying to grow cacao in their kitchen in colder climes of the Northern or Southern Hemispheres, if you wish to grow on a more industrial / farm scale then researching industrial cacao propagation will stand you in good stead.
Follow my instagram for more updates on their progress by using the hashtag #thetropicsinmykithen and to keep up with my other chocolatey antics. If you’re growing any cacao seedlings yourself, I’d love to hear of your progress. GOOD LUCK! 🙂
*PLEASE NOTE: Recent reports in Jamaica of ‘frosty pod rot’ – a tropical disease targeting cacao trees – is a harsh reminder of the damaging effects of transporting tropical fruits and plants from one country to another. While this is more of an issue when transporting specimens from one tropical region to another, it is worth bearing in mind the consequences of these actions. Flying back to the UK via USA meant I was not in contact with any other tropical regions once I left Nicaragua, but this should be a stark reminder of why border restrictions are in place. I was completely honest from the outset with what I had in my luggage and what I intended to do with my it when I got home, it is at the discretion of border officials as to whether these items can go through and be brought onto their country’s soil, their judgement is final and should be respected.
This post does not advocate the transportation of tropical plants illegally, you should make your own judgement when considering bringing pods or other specimens into your country, or traveling with pods through other tropical regions, particularly if you have been to regions affected by certain pests or diseases.