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Tactics of Evolution of the Cacao Tree #FB

February 9, 2010

My friend Mark Sciscenti, a chocolate historian, recently posted this on the web…

Theobroma sp. is a very old species – about 1 to 3 million year old. Botanically it is considered an “inferior” species – not to be confused with

Most of the T. sp., of which there are around 25 known sps., actually do not produce fruit pods at all but propagate through suckers growing out from the main tree stem.

The Theobroma sps. that do produce fruit pods, about 5 or so including the T. cacao, the one we make chocolate from, has a very specific reason for having the fruit growing low down on the tree.

The chief pollinators of T. cacao is the midge, tiny flies of the dipteran family. These midges live in the damp leaf litter under cacao tree and their flying range is quite limited. A survival evolutionary response by T. cacao, in order to compete for pollinators within the surrounding rainforest species, was to evolve flowers that grew within the midges flying range.

The other reason T. cacao developed low growing fruit was to provide access to seed dispersal vectors, i.e. providing sweet tasty fruit for animals within easy reach. It is quite known that spider monkeys, parrots, bats and other animals will break off the cacao pods, open the husk and eat the fruit but spitting out the bitter seeds, often in a different location then the original tree. The seeds drop to the forest floor where if conditions are ripe, the seeds will germinate.

One must realize also that T. cacao does not drop it’s fruit when ripe, contrary to several statements I’ve read. The reason for this is that if the fruit were to naturally drop off the tree when ripe, very often the fruit would be missed by animals, the husk not broken open and the seeds would rot inside the husk, thus no germination. Another plus for the fruit pods to not drop off the tree is that often animals will break open the husk while the fruit is still on the tree, eat some of the fruit then leave. This creates another possible habitat source for the midge – wet and dark.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Sacred Philip permalink
    February 11, 2010 3:48 am

    WoW

    Awesome post!

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