There are two prominent competing theories about the origins of the original wild Theobroma cacao tree. One group
of proponents believes wild examples were originally distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin, with domestication taking place
both in the Lacandon area of Mesoamerica and in lowland South America. Recent studies of Theobroma cacao genetics seem to show that the plant originated in the Amazon and was distributed by man throughout Central America and Mesoamerica. Its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate.
The bush is today found growing wild in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 200–400 m (650-1300 ft) in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. It requires a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. It is an understory tree, growing best with some overhead shade. The leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10–40 cm (4-16 in) long and 5–20 cm (2-8 in) broad.
The Three Grand Varieties of Cocoa:
Criollo (means ‘Creole’ in Spanish) This variety is the original cocoa tree, the earliest plantations of which were recorded in the 17th century. Originally grown in Venezuela, Central America and Mexico, it is now also found in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Sri Lanka. Considered to be the “prince of cocoas“, Criollo has a reputation for fineness and an intense aroma. This variety represents only 5% of global production, in part due to its vulnerability to insects and disease. It is reserved for use in only the very finest chocolates.
Forastero (means ‘foreigner’ in Spanish) This group is very diverse and, as a species, is more resistant to disease and pests and therefore more productive than the Criollo. Originally grown in the high Amazon region, it is now the predominant variety cultivated in Africa and, consequently accounts for nearly 80% of world production. It is considered to be of ordinary quality (a very slight aroma and a strong, short, bitter taste) and is widely used in mass produced chocolate products.
Trinitario (‘from Trinidad’) This species of the cocoa tree is a natural biological hybrid between the Criollo and the Forestario, which was exported from Trinidad where the Spanish colonists had established plantations. The quality of its cocoa varies between average and superior, with strong cocoa butter content. It represents 15% of world production.