Theobroma angustifolium is also potentially a Mesoamerican source of cocoa, for Mayan and Aztec chocolate

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Prepare your Mayan chocolate cacao cookbook, Here comes Theobroma angustifolium

Chocolate today is made from cocoa of the seeds of Theobroma cacao. Most cacao today is grown in Africa, but the origin is the Americas.

There are other species of “cacao” used by the Olmec, Aztec and Maya of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, such as pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, also known as jaguar tree (balamte’ or balam che’). The seed of the fruit pods of these plants was used by the Aztec and Maya and their neighbors for thousands of years. Even the Olmecs of 3500 years ago knew of cacao.

Recently I found that there is a third species of Theobroma grown in Soconusco (coastal Chiapas and adjacent Costa Sur of Guatemala). This is Theobroma angustifolium. I will need to check on whether Sophie Coe and Michael Coe’s excellent book on cocoa, The True History of Chocolate, 1996, mentions Theobroma angustifolium. And whether any of the scholarly reports in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (edited by Cameron McNeil 2009), mention Theobroma angustifolium. Also need to check another dozen good books on cacao of Mesoamerica. I estimate 75% do not mention Theobroma angustifolium whatsoever.

Theobroma angustifolium needs to be rescued as a species, and as discussion in books and articles

I first really noticed Theobroma angustifolium while doing research on pataxte (Theobroma bicolor) in mid-December (2014). So I drove 500 km back and forth to diverse eco-systems of the Costa Sur and Boca Costa of Guatemala (total distance, about 250 each way). I spoke with three knowledgeable cacao specialists. They all offered to help find Theobroma angustifolium, but on that first weekend, none of us could find it.

Now, four days later, one of the cacao specialists has found it, so once I am back from Christmas field trip in Alta Verapaz (searching for more pataxte (Theobroma bicolor) and more Theobroma angustifolium, then I could return to the Pacific side of Guatemala and do some photography (hoping some of the plants are still in bloom, or have fruits). So now another 500 kilometers.


Theobroma Angustifolium, Found at San Antonio Suchitepeques.

Not many books on cacao of the Maya devote much space to pataxte and even fewer discuss Theobroma angustifolium (for good reason since if this is a fully Costa Rican tree, it is possible that neither the Maya nor Aztec had it).

But… if the Olmecs could trade with Costa Rica for greenish jadeite, surely the Olmecs could have brought back seeds (of Theobroma angustifolium) from Costa Rica also. And in case the Olmecs (over centuries of trade) did not bring back at least a few seeds, what about centuries of Teotihuacan trade along the same coastal and piedmont routes? The Teotihuacans clearly focused on cacao throughout the Rio Seco and Tiquisate areas of the Costa Sur of Guatemala. I bet the Teotihuacanos had access to regular trade routes also to Costa Rica, and would have at least experimented with Theobroma angustifolium (which has a more beautiful flower than normal cacao, if you like thick orange flowers rather than thin light pinkish flowers of normal cacao).


Theobroma Angustifolium Flower, Found at San Antonio Suchitepeques.

And the Aztec had contacts up and deep down into Central America. So I am not yet convinced that not one single tree of Theobroma angustifolium, was known or grown by the pre-Columbian people of Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, El Salvador or Honduras.


In the 1940’s there were more trees of Theobroma angustifolium

Theobroma angustifolium DC. Prodr. 1: 484. 1824. Cacao de Costa Rica.

Planted occasionally in the Pacific coast or bocacosta, in the tierra caliente; tending to become naturalized in moist forest near plantations; noted in Santa Rosa and Suchitepequez, and doubtless in all the Pacific coast departments, as well as in Alta Verapaz. Chiapas and Tabasco; Salvador; Costa Rica; Panama; chiefly in cultivation, scarcely known in a truly wild state.

A small tree with a spreading crown, the bark smooth; leaves on very short petioles, oblong or oblong-oblanceolate, mostly 15-25 cm. long and 10 cm. wide or narrower, abruptly acuminate, obtuse or narrowly rounded and oblique at the base, entire, green above and glabrous or nearly so, covered beneath with a minute white tomentum, the nerves usually brown; inflorescences borne in the leaf axils on the young branches, stellate-tomentulose, about equaling the petioles; flowers yellow, 2 cm. broad; fruit irregularly ovoid or obovoid, about 15 cm. long and 7-8 cm. broad, obsoletely 5-sulcate, covered with a close brownish tomentum, glabrate in age; seeds slightly larger than those of T. Cacao.

Known in Salvador as "cushta" or "cacao de la India." The native region of this cacao is unknown, although Bernoulli (Neue Denkschr. Allg. Schweiz. Gesell. 24: 13. 1871), who had field experience in Central America, was inclined to believe it was native in southern Central America. In Costa Rica it is called "cacao de mico" and sometimes "cacao silvestre." The species is much planted in southwestern Mexico, especially in Chiapas, as a source of commercial cacao, and the product from Soconusco was used for many years to supply the royal family of Spain. The pulp of the fruit is edible raw, as is that of other species.

Standley and Steyermark, FIELDIANA: Botany, 1949, Vol. 24, Part VI, pages 421 and 422.


Theobroma angustifolium DC. is listed by Sprague and Riley, with the statement: "Morris considered that some of the wild cacao trees seen by him in British Honduras approached T. angustifolium in their characters." Since the two species are altogether unlike in foliage and other characters, it is hard to understand this statement.

Standley and Record, The Forests and Flora of British Honduras, 1936:254.


Theobronia angustifolium DC. Prodr. 1: 484. 1824.

Chiapas and Tabasco, and perhaps elsewhere. Central America. Small tree with spreading crown, the bark smooth ; leaves oblong or oblongoblanceolate, 13 to 25 cm. long, abruptly acuminate, somewhat oblique at base, green above, glabrous or nearly so, whitish beneath ; flowers yellow, borne on the young branches, the clusters few-flowered ; petals about 1 cm. long ;fruit oval, dark chestnut or cinnamon-brown, smaller than in T. cacao."Cushta" (El Salvador); "cacao de mico," "cacao silvestre" (Costa Rica).

This species is one of the important cacao plants of Mexico, and the notes given above under T. cacao apply in large part to it also. In Chiapas Theobronia angustifolium is the species generally grown. The region of Soconusco has long been famous for its chocolate, derived from this species, and for many years the supply for the royal family of Spain was brought from Soconusco.


I would be pleasantly surprised to find any Theobroma angustifolium remaining anywhere in Alta Verapaz. The Q’eqchi’ Mayan people raise primarily Theobroma cacao and lots of Theobroma bicolor (pataxte, or balamte’).

Few flowers mature; most cacao fruits rot

To write up the botanical facts of Theobroma angustifolium would require doing field work next to a tree so you could watch it an entire year. Until a benefactor kindly sends funds, we have no way to maintain staff near either Theobroma angustifolium or Theobroma bicolor to count how many flowers a sample tree can produce. But I estimate a single tree produces thousands of flowers. Yet when you see the tree you notice mostly rows of tiny fried dead flowers. You never see rows of fruits.

My observation seems to be correct, since local people sometimes say that they knew of this species in past years but cut the trees down because they did not produce enough pods.

During January a considerate botanical colleague alerted us that he had found another Theobroma angustifolium cacao tree in the Costa Sur area. So we drove another 300 km round trip to study this tree. Today (May 25, 2016) we are in front of these Theobroma angustifolium cacao trees again. We harvested three mature pods with the permission of the owner, and will see how many of the seeds grow.

Sadly, 90% of the pods on the tree were rotten. This was a large-sized mature tree.

Theobroma-angustifolium-Cacao-FLAAR-Westcott-SM pothograpy-0626

Theobroma Angustifolium rotten pod, Found at San Antonio Suchitepeques.

Theobroma angustifolium-Cacao-FLAAR-Westcott-SM-image0701

Theobroma Angustifolium rotten pod, Found at San Antonio Suchitepeques.

So after an entire month, we have found about three single Theobroma angustifolium trees. Yet when botanists Standley and others were doing their research in the 1940’s, there were entire plantations of Theobroma angustifolium trees. So here is a need calling out for a project: to find and rescue Theobroma angustifolium trees in Guatemala.

More Theobroma angustifolium cacao pods harvested July 2016

We drove long distances to study several other plant species, but since we passed two locations with Theobroma angustifolium, we stopped at both. One tree had no pods whatsoever. The other tree had perhaps 15 pods. The owner kindly allowed us to acquire five of these. There were no flowers on either tree.

The owner had a big smile on his face when he said that recently he harvested scores of pods from this same tree and was making really delicious cacao drink from it.

3D Video Render by Andrea Mendoza


Most recently updated July 19, 2016
(another 500km field trip).
First posted January 9, 2015. Previously updated February 2, 2015. Updated May 26, 2016 (another 500km field trip).

PNYNN and Livingston reports

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