106. Cacao

Cacao, the chocolate tree, is native to Central and South America, where it grows beneath the forest canopy. Cacao flowers are pollinated in the wild by tiny flightless flies called midges. But here at the U.S. Botanic Garden, our horticulture team pollinates cacao flowers by hand.


To harvest cacao, workers cut the pods from the tree with machetes, then place the seeds and pulp into covered containers to ferment for about five days. Chemical changes that occur during fermentation are critical to development of the chocolate flavor. After fermentation, the beans are spread in the sun to dry and then shipped to a chocolate processing plant.


Making chocolate involves roasting the dried beans and grinding them into what’s called chocolate liquor. Next, sweeteners and other ingredients such as vanilla and milk are added to the liquor. That’s the general process, but manufacturers often keep their specific blending formulas and other production processes a secret.

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