While studying abroad in Venezuela, I, along with other students, would take overnight buses to the coast. It was there where I discovered cacao trees, which give us chocolate and is found growing as an understory tree.
Its fruit clings strangely to its trunk. One tree will have fruit pods of different colors, which contain sweet, white pulp wrapped around each bean. Its scientific name is Theobroma cacao, Greek for “food of God.”
Kakaw is the name of the tree in a variety of Mayan languages and was originally domesticated in the upper Amazon some 5,000 years ago. Mayan mythology says the cacao tree was a gift to the people from the Plumed Serpent God, Quetzalcoatl.
For thousands of years, it’s been used as a ritualist beverage, and the beans were even traded as currency. Ceremonies utilizing it are still practiced today, and participants can experience an overall sense of well-being, aided by the many mood boosting chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. The Mayo Clinic weighs in, noting that chocolate has “many health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, preventing blood clots, improving memory, lowering cholesterol and even preventing some types of cancer.”
While it might not feel romantic, these are all great reasons to gift a box of chocolate this Valentine’s Day.
Alison Feik of Excelsior has a degree in landscape architecture and holds a wealth of knowledge about local plants and gardening. Grow more at beingstronginnature.com.