I was downtown last week for a meeting and took time to wander around the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG). I took many photos of which I will share later but wanted to mention one of the many important reasons why people should support their public gardens and conservatories. I was in the building, resting on a bench opposite the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) — yes, the chocolate tree. The cacao tree is a small tropical tree with large, ovoid, orange/yellow fruit, similar to papayas.
I was admiring the tree as any chocolate lover would when Dr. Susan Pell, Science and Public Program Manager at USBG, began a short talk about the tree to visitors in the area. Using her pruners, she sliced open one of the fruit, called a pod, stating that “each pod has about 20 to 60 seeds.” However, the opened pod revealed a white pulpy mass – no seed in sight. She then put a segment of the pulp in her mouth to chew and remove the pulp so she could show us the enclosed seed in her hand. I asked if one could eat the seed but she said it would be too bitter. The seed, also called a bean, is high in fat, also known as cocoa butter. To decrease the bitterness, the seeds are fermented, causing the seed color to change from purple to brown (hence bean). In factories, the beans are toasted and ground until they become liquid (from the high fat content). From then, the liquid is used to make various forms of chocolate in a more solid state. In all my years of eating chocolate, this was the first time I saw the inside of a cacao pod and a bean so it was a fascinating, serendipitous experience that could have only happened at a public conservatory. In fact, the only way I could have seen the pods is by staff working at the conservatory because the small flowers, which bloom directly on the trunk, are pollinated by a type of fly that does not exist within the glass. Staff have to hand pollinate the cacao tree to ensure fruit. Not only was I fascinated but all the other people around Dr. Pell were equally interested and we learned more about the origins of chocolate that day. Support your local public gardens and conservatories!