Crosswood Gardens: Scary


It’s a scary time, and I’m not just talking about Halloween. The article “All Stuff, No Treats?” in the October-November 2021 issue of National Wildlife, was a sobering reminder of the high price of the cocoa crop. The American chocolate industry is thriving to the tune of $ 20 billion a year!

The Good: The shade-grown cocoa agroforestry produces high-quality, sustainable chocolate. Cocoa plants live among crops and trees. Rubber trees, guava trees and mango trees provide shade. Bananas, plantains, coconuts, and other crops are included which provide habitats for birds, butterflies, bats, and other wildlife. The farmer’s income is improved and food is assured.

The tropical cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) belongs to the mallow family along with okra and cotton. Native to the upper Amazon region of South America, the delicate evergreen with large, glossy leaves and shallow roots likes warm, humid environments. Cocoa trees can reach 20 to 30 feet in height and width, but in the wild, they can reach 60 feet. The small pink flowers are borne directly on the trunk and branches. After fertilization, green to red football-shaped pods up to 12 inches long and 3 inches wide develop. Each contains 20 to 50 seeds. A mature tree can produce up to 70 pods. It takes 40 pods to make 2.2 pounds of cocoa mass.

Three hours of direct sun, but afternoon shade is needed or the leaves will burn. The cocoa tree needs rich soil and constant moisture. The slow growing tree can be propagated in a greenhouse if the grower is particularly careful. Flowers are produced when the tree is five years old. The cocoa tree can live forty years, twenty-five years if it is cultivated commercially. The cocoa tree is very sensitive to climate change.

The bad: Two-thirds of cocoa bean production is found in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa. Due to the high demand for chocolate, 85% of the forests have been destroyed (forest elephants, pygmy hippos and chimpanzees and their missing houses), replaced by cocoa monocultures. Apparently there is a lot of child labor and slavery. Eighty percent of cocoa farmers use organochlorines, neonicotinoids (bee and pollinator killers) and fungicides. Growing cocoa uses pesticides that are more dangerous than any other crop, except cotton, their parent. Does the chocolate taste a bit bitter?

What pollinates cocoa flowers? Not bees or butterflies but a tiny biting midge of the genus Forcipomyia. Only 5% of the thousands of flowers of each cocoa plant are successfully pollinated; the rest must be artificially pollinated. Machetes are the tools used by farmers and children to harvest cocoa pods, resulting in numerous injuries, some permanent.

The Chocolate Belt spans 20 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator. The biggest producers are West Africa, South America and South East Asia. Countries have their own cocoa pests. The swollen cocoa shoot virus was found in Ghana in 1936. Frosted pod fungi were discovered in Ecuador in 1895. Witches’ broom fungi in South America, Panama and the Caribbean were detected in 1785. Cocoa mealybugs are native to Southeast Asia. Cocoa mirids (true bugs with piercing mouthparts) live in West and Central Africa. Cocoa pod borers live in Saudi Arabia and Indonesian countries. Seven species of the devastating black pod disease, caused by swimming oomycetes, are found worldwide.

Look for “Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance, or Fair for Life” chocolate labels. The Chocolate Buying Guide website below ranks 80% of global chocolate brands based on their social and environmental performance: chocolate. Scroll past the subscription box and read. Lindt has its own self-check program. Cadbury is striving to obtain all products in a sustainable manner by 2025. Hershey and Ghirardelli are having problems. Consumers can make a difference. We have the power to shape the chocolate market. Sustainably sourced and produced chocolates cost more, but cheap products are deadlier in many other ways. Show your support for smallholder cocoa farmers this Halloween and the holiday season!

Speaking of which, Halloween is coming tomorrow night. A frightening time of year, the veil between the living and the dead is shrinking. Light carved pumpkins and wear costumes to trick evil spirits. Over 3,000 years ago, the ancient Celts thought that nature was “dead” at the end of summer, as perhaps some family and friends. The Gaelic word Samhain (Sow-ehn), which signified the end of summer, was the name given to the celebration. Seats were set at the table for the deceased. Crazy stories have been told. Sacrifices made. Bonfires were blazing to thwart the soul-stealing fairies. The Celtic New Year arrived on November 1, ushering in an often brutal winter.

Seventeen hundred years ago, the Romans organized the Feralia, a festival held at the end of October in honor of their dead. The Romans paid homage to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. The reason for eating or jumping for apples.

Die to go to the beach on Halloween

Fifteen hundred years ago, Christianity attempted to stifle pagan festivities by moving All Saints’ Day (in honor of all saints and martyrs) from May 13 to November 1. Four hundred years later, All Soul’s Day was added on November 2. The two terribly dark days are observed concurrently with the Day of the Dead, an ancient Aztec tradition popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not yet widely marketed as Halloween has become, families are connecting, enjoying life, honoring and celebrating their ancestors.

My own Halloween display, installed every year, not only features the 3D frame of a haunted house with ghosts, bats, skeletons, pumpkins and witches hanging everywhere, but a small box behind contains the names of my pets, friends and family who are no longer.

This Halloween pays homage to your dead, carve your pumpkin (s), place the candy near the front door, put on your best disguise, take out the Ouija board, have a shoot, watch a horror movie, go for a walk or treat or…. eat lots of sweet corn, but remember….

Buy only chocolates that are sustainably sourced and harvested. They are more expensive. Act rather than talk. Send the message to the chocolate industry: Stop destroying rainforests.

Happy Halloween!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, Oklahoma State Graduate (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer, and certified master gardener and naturalist from Oklahoma. Contact her at [email protected]

Good or bad chocolate?


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