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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chocolate Family

With cacao in Nicaragua
At EarthView presentations, I sometimes mention that I spend a lot of my time teaching and learning about the geography of coffee. Everything that is produced in some places and consumed in others has a geography, and coffee is just my favorite example among many.

Because chocolate is much more popular than coffee among our elementary and middle-school audiences, I sometimes mention cacao, the fruit from which chocolate is made. Yes, chocolate and coffee are both made from fruits. They share a lot of other geographic characteristics, often growing on the same mountains in the Tropics.

I always mention that although they are similar, cacao and coffee are not from the same family. During our most recent visit to the Richardson School in Easton, a very sharp fourth grader asked a good question: "If coffee is not in the chocolate family, what is?" This blog post is to fulfill my promise to find out, for I had never before thought to check!

To begin the answer, we should identify each plant. Cacao is a single species from the genus Theobroma; its Latin name is therefore Theobroma cacao. (Wikipedia is not a source I usually recommend, but its coverage of Linnean taxonomy is informative and easy to navigate.) A close relative in the same species is cupuaçu, which is native to the Amazon rain forest. Many of my friends in the Amazon have cupuaçu trees in their yards -- I have enjoyed climbing the trees and eating the fruit, though its flavor is a little bit unusual.

Coffee is a bit more complicated, as two different species of the Coffea genus are produced commercially. About 70 percent of coffee is Coffea arabica, which was the first to be identified and which has the higher quality. About 30 percent is the robusta variety of the species Coffea canephora, which is almost always known simply as robusta. This is higher in caffeine and lower in quality, but easier to grow.

So what about the families? The Theobroma genus is part of the family Malvaceae, which includes some surprising cousins. One relative is the kola nut of tropical western Africa, which contains caffeine but is only sometimes used in cola soft drinks. Another is the extraordinary Baobab tree, which can live for up to 4,000 years! Most surprising to me, though, are that cotton and okra are also family members.
Baobab painting, Pew Gardens
Coffea is part of the Rubiaceae family, one of the largest families of flowering plants (any plant with a fruit has a flower). Its name derives from the word rubia for red, and the family includes chinchona, from which quinine is produced, and gardenia flowers.

The species of these two families are found throughout the world, mostly in tropical or other frost-free environments. Even those that are closely related may be native to different continents, evidence of the geologically recent emergence of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Americas.

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