Malvaceae (Mallow family)

Description. Evergreen, often multistemmed tree, 6-16 m (20-52 ft) tall. Alternate, simple, elliptic leaves 20-40 cm (8-16 in) long by 5-16 cm (2-6.3 in) wide. Small white to reddish-white 5-petaled flowers are produced in clusters along older branches and on the trunk. Ovoid, usually purple, orange, red, or yellow berries are 10-30 cm (4-12 in) long. The thick fruit wall encloses a soft, juicy white aril with 30-50 purple or reddish-brown, hard, bitter-tasting seeds, 1-3 cm (0.4-1.2 in) long.

Benefits Of: CACAO TREE, COCOATREE Photo Gallery

Origin and Distribution. Probably native to the Amazon basin, where it grows in the understory of tropical lowland rainforests. From there it spread in precolonial times to tropical regions of Central America, where ceramic vessels with residues of cacao have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative period (1900-900 BC). Today the cacao tree is grown in many tropical regions, with Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, and Nigeria being the largest producers.

Food uses. After being fermented and dried, cacao seeds are roasted and ground into cacao paste, which is then separated into cacao butter and cacao powder. Cacao powder is used as a spice in sweets, bakery goods, drinks, and savory dishes. Cacao butter is mixed with milk powder, cacao powder, and sugar to make chocolate.

Mesoamerican peoples made nutritious drinks from cacao seeds blended with water, vanilla, chili peppers, and allspice. In Mexico, traditional sauces called mole are made from cacao, chilies, and other spices and vegetables.

Comments. Cacao seeds contain the alkaloids theo-bromin and caffeine, and about 50% fat; the fat is used in the production of skin creams and other cosmetic products. Cacao is rich in flavonoids that may have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system.

Mayan and Aztec people used cacao seeds as a currency that was accepted in some isolated parts of Yucatan well into the nineteenth century.

Description. Small to medium-sized evergreen tree, 6-8 m (20-26 ft) tall. Alternate, elliptic leaves 2030 cm (8-12 in) long with entire margins. Small dark red flowers are produced in small clusters along branches and in the axils of leaves. Fruits nearly spherical, orange-yellow to yellow with a thick rind covered in irregular ridges and grooves. A soft white pulp encloses several slightly curved, light brown seeds. In the wild, the seeds are dispersed by monkeys and other small mammals like agoutis.

Origin and Distribution. The species grows naturally in the understory of premontane rainforests of the eastern slopes of the Andes from Colombia to northern Bolivia. The mountain cacao is rarely cultivated except in botanical gardens and rare tree collections.

Food uses. The sweet, aromatic pulp is used to make juices, milk shakes, and ice cream. Most often the pulp of wild fruits is eaten out of hand. The seeds can be roasted to make a drink similar to chocolate.

Comments. This little known Theobroma species has some potential because of its edible pulp. The genus name Theobroma, meaning “food for the gods,” is derived from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (food).

Description. Small tree with dark brown bark, 8-14 m (26-46 ft) tall. Alternate leaves oblong-elliptic, 25-40 cm (10-16 in) long by 8-10 cm (3-4 in) wide. Young, emerging leaves are pink or salmon colored. Reddish flowers with thick, triangular sepals are borne singly or in small clusters. Brown, oblong or elliptic fruits, 15-20 cm (6-8 in) long and weighing up to 2 kg (4.4 lbs), with thick, fuzzy exocarp. Whitish, soft, fragrant pulp encloses 20-60 dark red seeds. The subacid to sweet pulp has a taste described as similar to a blend of chocolate and pineapple.

Origin and Distribution. The cupuassu grows naturally in the southern and southeastern parts of the Amazon basin of South America. It is rarely cultivated outside its original habitat. The tree requires a humid, tropical climate.

Food uses. The aromatic pulp is eaten fresh or made into fruit drinks, desserts, ice cream, yogurt, marmalade, and sweets. The pulp’s unusual, pleasant taste raises its potential for future commercial use.

The seeds contain a white and fragrant fat and are used to make a type of chocolate called cupulate, similar to that made with seeds of the closely related cacao (T. cacao, p. 308).

Comments. The pulp has a hydrating effect on the skin, and pulp and seed fat are used in the manufacture of body lotions and skin-care products. The pulp is very rich in antioxidants, including polyphenols and flavonoids. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B2, and B3 and minerals like calcium and iron. Fruits also contain caffeine, but less than cacao.

Hybridization of cacaui with cacao has been suggested as a way to enhance disease resistance of commercial cacao plants.

Description. Medium-sized evergreen tree, 8-15 m (26-50 ft) tall. Alternate, elliptic-oblong leaves 1838 cm (7-15 in) long by 8-18 cm (3-7 in) wide. Dark red 5-petaled flowers are produced in dense, cushionlike clusters directly on the trunk. Spherical to ovoid fruits with yellow-orange, velvety, sulcated skin. Fruits contain up to 20 seeds surrounded by a soft white pulp.

Origin and Distribution. Native from the Amazon and Orinoco lowlands of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia north to Panama. Occasionally cultivated as a dooryard tree in the Amazon region. Fruits are often collected from wild trees. Rarely grown outside its natural range.

Food uses. The aromatic, sweet pulp is consumed fresh or made into a refreshing juice or milk shakes. The seeds are used like seeds of cacao (T. cacao, p. 308) for making chocolate considered by some to be of excellent quality.

Comments. The cacaui is a minor species among 22 species of Theobroma and closely related to cacao (T. cacao). Hybridization of cacaui with cacao has been suggested to improve disease resistance of commercial cacao plants.

Description. Medium-sized evergreen tree, 10-16 m (33-52 ft) tall. Leaves alternate, dark green, elliptic to lanceolate, glabrous, 20-30 cm (8-12 in) long. Small, dark red flowers are produced solitarily or in small clusters along smaller branches and in leaf axils. Greenish-yellow, ellipsoid to obovate fruits with a thick, hard exocarp covered in velvety hairs. A white, succulent pulp encloses numerous hard, brown seeds.

Origin and Distribution. Native to the Amazon basin from southern Colombia and Venezuela south to Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. The tree grows naturally in the understory of humid tropical lowland rainforests, often close to streams and igapo river channels. The fruits are commonly sold in markets in the Amazon region. Rarely cultivated outside its natural range.

Food uses. The pulp of the fruit is highly valued for its delicious, sweet taste and is made into juice and milk shakes. The pulp can also be used to make ice cream, yogurt, and desserts. The seeds are roasted and used as food by native inhabitants of the Amazon region.

Comments. With its aromatic sweet pulp, the cupui, though popular in some places, is an underused member of the Theobroma genus, which is known mainly for the seeds of cacao (T. cacao, p. 308).

The seeds of T. subincanum could serve as a cacao butter substitute in the food and cosmetic industry, since cacao is susceptible to fungal diseases and parasites.

Description. Evergreen, climbing vine growing 1012 m (33-39 ft) in length. Alternate, succulent, oval to elliptic smooth leaves 12-22 cm (5-8.6 in) long by 4-8 cm (1.6-3 in) wide. Fragrant greenish-yellow flowers are produced in dense racemes. Fruits slender cylindrical pods, 15-23 cm (6-9 in) long, that split open when ripe, releasing numerous tiny black seeds measuring 0.4 mm (0.02 in).

Origin and Distribution. Native to humid tropical lowlands of Central America and Mexico. Vanilla was already being cultivated in pre-Columbian times; Mexican peoples such as the Totonacs were the first to grow vanilla along the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico. In the nineteenth century, French sailors brought vanilla to Madagascar, Mauritius, and Reunion, where plantations were soon started. Today vanilla is cultivated in many tropical regions; Indonesia, Madagascar, China, and Mexico are the main producers.

Food uses. Vanilla is used to flavor ice cream, bakery goods, sweets, puddings, preserves, beverages, and chocolate. In ancient Mesoamerica, the Mayans and the Aztecs used vanilla to flavor a drink prepared from water, cacao seeds, and spices such as chili peppers.

Comments. Vanilla is used in aromatherapy, candles, lamp oils, tobaccos, and the production of perfumes. Among the many aromatic compounds in vanilla, vanillin is mainly responsible for its characteristic smell and taste.

Different commercial varieties are distinguished by where the vanilla is produced. So-called Bourbon-vanilla, grown in Madagascar, Reunion, and the Comoros Islands, is considered the highest quality vanilla.

Synthetically produced vanilla lacks the full aroma of natural vanilla and is made from lignin harvested from wood chips.

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