The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Theobroma cacao Linnaeus


Cacao Tree




Sterculiaceae (Cocoa Family); Byttnerieae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


Like all cultivated plants with a long history, Theobroma is a quite variable plant, especially with regard to the color, shape, and size of its fruits and the seeds (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 943). A number of subspecies, varieties, and forms have been described:


Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao (L.) Cuatr.—criollo

Theobroma cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum (Chevalier) Cuatr.—forastero, calabacillo, amelonado

Theobroma cacao var. catonga

Theobroma cacao f. lacandonense Cuatr.—balamte’ “jaguar tree”) (a wild form)

Theobroma cacao f. leiocarpum (Bernoulli) Ducke—porcelaine java criollo, cacao calabacillo

Theobroma cacao f. pentagonum (Bernoulli) Cuatr.—alligator cacao, cacao lagarto


The form lacandonense is a semi-climbing wild shrub with relatively small fruits that occurs in the primary forest of the Selva Lacandona (Chiapas, Mexico). The form is regarded as the natural precursor of the cultivated cacao tree (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 943).

On commercial plantations, a distinction is made between essentially only two cultivated sorts: forastero and criollo. The former is planted chiefly in Brazil and Africa, the latter in Central America. A number of hybrids have been produced from the two, and these are named after the places where they are cultivated, viz., Guayaquil, Caracas, Bahia, and Accra.



Cacao guianensis Aubl.

Cacao minus Gaertn.

Cacao sativa Aubl.

Theobroma caribaea Sweet

Theobroma interregima Stokes

Theobroma kalagua De Wild.

Theobroma leiocarpa Bernoulli

Theobroma pentagona Bernoulli

Theobroma saltzmanniana Bernoulli

Theobroma sapidum Pittier

Theobroma sativa (Aubl.) Lign. et Le Bey

Theobroma sphaerocarpa Chevalier

Folk Names


Äh kakaw (Lacandon), aka-’i (Ka’apor), aka-’iwa (Ka’apor), aka-’iwe-te (Ka’apor), ako’o-’i (Ka’apor), bana torampi (Shipibo), biziáa (Zapotec), bizoya, cacahoaquiahuit, cacahoatl, cacahua, cacahuatl, cacao, cacaocuáhuitl (Aztec), cacaotero, cacao tree, cacau, cacauatzaua (Zoque), cacauaxochitl (Aztec, “cacao flower”),305 cacayoer, caco (Mixe), cágau (Popoluca), cajecua (Tarascan), chocolate, chudechú (Otomi), cocoa tree, haa (Maya), hach kakaw, kahau, kaka (Ka’apor), kakao, kakaobaum, mamicha-moya (Chinantec), ma-mu-guía, mochá (Chinantec), palo de cacao, pizoya (Zapotec), quemitoqui, sarhuiminiqui, schokoladenbaum, sia (Cuna), si’e (Siona), tlapalcacauatl (Aztec,“colored cacao”), torampi (Shipibo-Conibo), turampi (Quechua), turanqui, tzon xua, xocoatl, yagabisoya (Zapotec), yaga-pi-zija, yau


This cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is covered with an abundance of red fruits.




The cacao tree was cultivated in Central America some four thousand years ago. There, it was venerated as a food of the gods and was consumed during rituals and offered to the gods. Linnaeus took this fact into consideration when he named the tropical plant Theobroma cacaoTheobroma means “gods’ food,” and cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language that refers to the tree, its fruit, and the drink prepared from the fruit. The word chocolate is derived from the Aztec xocolatl, a name for the beverage. Solid chocolate appears to have been a Swiss invention.

The Aztec held cacao beans in high regard. They used them as food, stimulants, medicine, and even currency (especially for paying prostitutes). They were revered as a food of the gods. The psychoactive effects of cacao were described in the Aztec-language texts of Bernardino de Sahagun (Ott 1985).

The conquistador Hernán Cortés brought the first cacao beans to Europe, where they were initially used almost exclusively in the production of love drinks. The first book about cacao, titled Libro en el cual se trata del chocolate[Book on the Preparation of Cacao], was published in New Spain (Mexico) in 1609. In 1639, a book appeared in Europe in which it was claimed that the sea god Neptune had brought chocolate from the New World to Europe (Morton 1986, 10, 14). Today, cocoa for drinking and the various kinds of chocolate are among the most commonly consumed foods and/or agents of pleasure in the world.



The wild form of the plant is known only in southern Mexico. The cultivated cacao tree had spread into all of the tropical rain forests of the Americas by prehistoric times. Today, there also are large occurrences of the plant in Africa and Southeast Asia, where it is grown as a crop.



Cacao is propagated from fresh seeds, which are pregerminated in plantations and allowed to develop into small trees before being planted into the ground. This tropical tree grows only in the tropics in areas that receive at least 130 cm of precipitation per year. The cacao tree is a shade-loving plant that does not tolerate exposure to direct sunlight. Because of this, modern cacao plantations plant groves of bananas (known as “cocoa mothers”) next to the young trees (Morton 1986, 57–58). The first harvest occurs after the eighth year, and thereafter a rich harvest can be obtained at least twice a year.

In ancient Nicaragua, cacao farmers were required to abstain from sex for thirteen days before planting the seeds so that they would not make the god of chocolate (= moon god) angry, thereby protecting their harvest.



This evergreen tree can attain a height of around 15 meters and can live for some sixty years. The tiny white, pink, or violet flowers grow directly from the trunk or the thicker primary branches, often at the same time as the pods (fruits), which hang from the trunk on short stems. A single tree can develop approximately one hundred thousand flowers annually. The pods are initially green and then turn yellow, red, or purple as they mature.

Psychoactive Material


—Cacao beans (cacao semen, avellanae mexicanae, faba cacao, fabae mexicanae, nuclei cacao, semen cacao, semen cacao tostum, semen theobromae, theobromatis semen, kakaosamen, cocoa beans)

—Cocoa shells (cacao cortex, cortex cacao, cortex cacao tostus, testae cacao, kakaotee)

—Cocoa butter (cacao oleum, butyrum cacao, oleum cacao, oleum theobromatis, kakaofett)

—Fresh fruit pulp (for brewing beer or chicha)

Preparation and Dosage


The Indians prepared a cacao mixture from roasted and ground cacao beans, cornmeal (cf. Zea mays), honey (from wild bees), vanilla, allspice, and chili pods. In former times, a variety of spices (cinnamon/canella, vanilla, almonds, pistachios, musk, nutmeg [cf. Myristica fragrans], cloves, allspice, anise) usually were added to the cocoa as well.

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is said to have brought the following cacao recipe to Spain in 1528 (from Montignac 1996, 27):


The flowers and fruits of the cacao tree grow directly from the trunk.



The ripe cacao fruit (Theobroma cacao).



The seeds of the cacao fruit are known as cacao beans.


700 g cacao

750 g white sugar

56 g (= 2 ounces) “cinnamon” (canella, perhaps Canella winterana)306

14 Mexican peppercorns (Capsicum spp.)

14 g “spice cloves” (Pimenta dioica)

3 vanilla pods

1 handful “anise” (probably Tagetes lucida)

1 hazelnut

musk, gray amber, and orange blossom water


One important ingredient in the traditional Indian preparation was the cacao flowers, which came from Quararibea funebris and not Theobroma cacao. Today, the cacao drink prepared with Quararibeaflowers is called tejate(West 1992, 106). Generally speaking, cacao appears to have served an important function as a vehicle for administering other psychoactive plants and fungi (Ott 1985).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a succolade made from powdered cacao beans, sugar, and wine was drunk in Germany, sometimes heavily fortified with cardamom (cf. essential oils) and saffron (Crocus sativus) (Root 1996, 364*).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, invigorating drinks made of cacao and Catha edulis were made in London and sold as Catha-Cocoa Milk. Preparations of cacao and Cola spp. or Coffea arabicaare now popular. In Switzerland, a special chocolate with powdered Psilocybe semilanceata is being manufactured clandestinely.

Cacao shells can be brewed to make a tea. A normal dosage is 2 to 4 g per cup of water (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 946).

To date, no incidents of overdosing on cacao are known.

Ritual Use


Numerous archaeological finds demonstrate that the ritual use of cacao—as an offering, incense, or inebriant—must be very ancient in Mesoamerica. Among the prehistoric Toltecs, a cacao branch was placed in the hand of every person who made a public smoke offering to the gods as a sign of his religious respect.

The Aztecs viewed the cacao tree as a gift from their peace-loving god Quetzalcoatl (“feathered serpent”). An Aztec text from the early colonial period provides a precise description of the tree and of the drink, which could be inebriating:


Cacaoaquavitl—Cacao Tree

It has broad branches. It is simply a round tree. Its fruit is like the ears of dried maize, like an ear of green maize. Its name is “cacao ear.” Some are reddish brown, some whitish brown, some bluish brown. Its heart, that which is inside it, its filled insides, is like an ear of maize. The name of this when it grows is cacao. This is edible, is drinkable.

This cacao, when much is drunk, when one consumes much of it, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, has an effect upon one, makes one ill, makes one confused. If a normal amount is drunk, it makes one happy, refreshes one, comforts one, strengthens one. Thus it is said: “I take cacao. I moisten my lips. I refresh myself.” (Sahagun, 11)



Aztec Additives to Cacao


(from Dressler 1953, 149*; Heffern 1974*; Navarro 1992, 124*; Ott 1993*; Reents-Budet 1994, 77–79; supplemented)




The so-called cacao flowers come from the rare tree Quararibea funebris and are used to flavor cacao.



Matico (Piper angustifolium) is used to flavor traditional Aztec cacao.


“Quetzalcoatl ruled in Tula. Abundance and happiness were complete. No one paid money for food, nor for the things that were necessary for life. The gourds were so large and fat that a man could barely carry them under his arm. The ears of maize were as large and full as the grip of the stone that was used to grind maize and cacao. . . . Even jewels and gold were given without one having to give anything in return, in such abundance were they present. Cacao thrived magnificently. Cacao plants could be seen everywhere. All of the inhabitants of Tula were rich and happy, they suffered from no need, nothing was missing from their houses.”






The Aztecs ingested cacao or chocolate together with entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.) in associated rituals, a practice that is still found among numerous tribes today (West 1992, 106).

The Yucatec Maya venerate a black god named Ek Chuah (= God M, presumably identical to Yacatecuhtli, the long-nosed Aztec god of merchants) as the cacao god. Cacao farmers held a festival in his honor during the month of Muan in the old Mayan calendar. During travel, incense (consisting perhaps of cacao beans and copal) was offered to effect a safe return. Ek Chuah was frequently depicted on incense vessels. The glyph of the god’s name was a free-floating eye (Taube 1992, 88 ff.). The Maya and Lacandon use freshly whipped cacao as a ritual additive to balche’.

The shamans of the Cuna Indians of Panama (Darien) also use cacao beans as a ritual incense. The healers use it in their diagnoses. First, a clay incense vessel with two handles on its sides is filled with glowing charcoal. The shaman then scatters cacao beans onto the charcoal and peers into the ascending smoke. The shaman reads the patient’s illness in the behavior and structure of the smoke. Cacao beans are burned as incense at almost every Cuna ritual occasion and tribal ceremony. The cacao smoke also finds medicinal use. The beans are mixed with chili pods (Capsicum fructescens L.; see Capsicum spp.) and then burned; this pungent smoke is said to promote healing for all types of fever diseases, including malaria (Duke 1975, 293*).



The Maya of the Classic Period (300–900 C.E.) left behind a rich trove of ritual drinking vessels. These polychrome ceramics are artistically decorated with hieroglyphic texts and varied depictions of visionary experiences and ritual activities. Many of the hieroglyphic texts found on such drinking vessels have now been deciphered. The owner of the vessel is frequently named, and the text then notes that “the vessel [was used] for cacao freshly picked from the tree,” indicating that these drinking vessels were directly associated with the ritual ingestion of cacao (MacLeod and Reents-Budet 1994). The hieroglyph for cacao is a stylized monkey head.

Cacao fruits are frequently depicted in Aztec and related art. The tree, its fruits, and the drink prepared from the fruits are often depicted in the illustrated manuscripts of numerous Meso-american peoples.

In the 1960s, an American psychedelic band took the name Chocolate Watch Band. Its music, however, was probably influenced by other types of drugs.

Medicinal Use


In ancient America, cacao was esteemed as a tonic and aphrodisiac. In Indian folk medicine, cacao is drunk to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Cuna women drink a decoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Listless children are given a tea made from the leaves, and fresh, young leaves are applied externally as an antiseptic agent (Duke 1975, 293*). In Peru, cacao is drunk primarily as a diuretic and in cases of kidney infections (Chavez V. 1977, 322*).

In homeopathy, the mother tincture obtained by macerating the roasted seeds (Cacao hom. HPUS88) occasionally finds use (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 946).

The debate as to whether chocolate is harmful or beneficial to health continues today (Fuller 1994). A recently published book written by a physician argues that chocolate is very healthful for people:


Today, there is a moral obligation to disseminate its extraordinary nutritional properties everywhere, which together with its preventive effects especially in the area of cholesterol make it a beneficial and wholesome food source that should be used frequently and which, in the proper amounts, is to be recommended as a regular component of the diet. (Montignac 1996, 198)




Cacao beans contain 18% protein, 56% lipids (fat), 13.5% carbohydrates, 1.45% theobromine, 0.05% caffeine, and 5% tannin (Montignac 1996, 203). Theobromine is also found in Ilex cassine and Ilex guayusa. Also present is theophylline, a compound with a similar structure, and βphenethylamine, tyramine, tryptamine, serotonin, and catechin tanning agents (especially in the shell). Dried and roasted cocoa shells can contain up to 0.02% caffeine and 0.4 to 1.3% theobromine (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 946).

The leaves also contain the methylxanthines theobromine and caffeine. The concentrations vary depending upon the source but typically comprise less than 1% of the dry weight. They also contain chlorogenic acid and rutoside (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 944).

It has recently been discovered that cacao also contains anandamides (see THC).


An early modern illustration of the cacao bean. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)







The psychoactive effects described in the Aztec sources may be due to the cacao additives or to a synergism with the added substances. I have found the traditionally prepared Indian drink to be very stimulating and euphoric. These effects are not necessarily to be expected with commercial cocoa.

Chocolate is popularly referred to as “brain nourishment” or “nerve food.” Moderate to high use clearly leads to an improvement in mood and other beneficial effects. This is attributed to the theobromine but may also result from the anandamide (cf. THC). Theobromine can apparently produce a kind of dependency (a so-called chocolate addiction).

It is unlikely that the smoke produced by burning cacao beans will have any pharmacological effects.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Cacao is subject only to the laws governing foods and is freely available. Internationally, the criollo variety is especially prized, as it is regarded as superior in quality. In Europe, it is sometimes sold under the name Mayan chocolate.



See also the entries for Theobroma spp. and caffeine.


Baumann, Thomas, and Renate Seitz. 1994. Theobroma. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:941–55. Berlin: Springer.


Bühler, Margrit. 1987. Geliebte Schokolade. Aarau and Stuttgart: AT Verlag. Cuatrecasas, José. 1964. Cacao and its allies: A taxonomic revision of the genus TheobromaContribution of the U.S. National Herbarium 35 (6).


Fuller, Linda K. 1994. Chocolate fads, folklore, and fantasies. New York: The Haworth Press.


MacLeod, Barbara, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 1994. The art of calligraphy: Image and meaning. In Painting the Maya universe: Royal ceramics of the Classic Period, ed. Dorie Reents-Budet, 106–63. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press.


Mitscherlich, A. 1859. Der Cacao and die Chocolade. Berlin: A. Hirschwald.


Montignac, Michel. 1996. Gesund mit Schokolade. Offenburg: Artulen-Verlag.


Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. 1986. Chocolate: An illustrated history. New York: Crown Publishers.


Ott, Jonathan. 1985. Chocolate addict. Vashon Island, Wash.: Natural Products Co.


Reents-Budet, Dorie, ed. 1994. Painting the Maya universe: Royal ceramics of the Classic Period. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press.


Schwarz, Aljoscha, and Ronald Schweppe. 1997. Von der Heilkraft der Schokolade: Geniessen ist gesund. Munich: Peter Erd.


Taube, Karl Andreas. 1992. The major gods of ancient Yucatan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.


West, John A. 1992. A brief history and botany of cacao. In Chilies to chocolate: Food the Americas gave the world, ed. Nelson Foster and Linda S. Cordell, 105–21. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press.


Young, Allen M. 1994. The chocolate tree: A natural history of cacao. Washington, D.C., and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.


“O happie money [= cocoa beans], which provides the human race with a delightful and useful drink and exempts its immune possessor from the Tartaric plague of avarice, since it cannot be buried and cannot be stored for long!”






(HARTWICH 1911, 336*)


“Chocolate is divine, we all know that—divine as in delicious, delectable . . . a-a-ahhh. But chocolate really is divine—divine as in heaven-born. It came on this earth as the gift of a god. And earthly incarnations of divinity—emperors, kings, princesses—have always made it their own before passing it down to the rest of humanity. Today it still suggests luxury, opulence, and pleasure.”




(1986, 1)



Harvesting the flowers of the cacao flower tree (Quararibea funebris), which was added to cacao as an aromatic and possibly psychoactive spice. Other Quararibea species were used for psychoactive purposes (espingo) in Peru or were added to ayahuasca in Amazonia. (Colonial-period illustration from the Paso y Tronco edition of Sahagun)


Theobroma spp.


Wild Cacao




Sterculiaceae (Cocoa Family); Byttnerieae Tribe

The genus Theobroma consists of some twenty neotropical, i.e., American, species. Several species of wild cacao that occur in the tropics of Central and South America have ethnopharmacological significance. To date, there have been few chemo-taxonomic studies of the genus. For example, the presence of caffeine and theobromine has been demonstrated only for Theobroma cacao (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 942).

Theobroma bicolor Humb. et Bonpl.


This Central American cacao species is known in Mayan as kakawxaw, or balamte’ (“jaguar tree”). In other parts of Mexico, it is called cacao blancocacao malacayopataste, or pataxte (Hernández 1987, 1228*). The Maya used it as a balche’ additive. In Mexico, its fruits are used as a substitute for the cultivated cacao (Theobroma cacao). It is grown in plantations in the state of Guerrero, where the fruit juice is used to prepare a soft drink as well as a fermented, winelike beverage.

Theobroma grandiflorum (Willd. ex Spreng.) Schum.—cupuassú


The wild cacao species known as cupuassú occurs in the area of Manaus (Amazonia) and is esteemed especially for its fruits, which are rounder and flatter than those of Theobroma cacao (de Aguiar and Lleras 1983). The abundant fruit juice is used to make fermented drinks (cacao wine). The leaves are used to manufacture alkaline plant ashes for snuffs and coca quids (see Erythroxylum coca). This species of cacao contains neither caffeine nor theobromine; its only active constituent is the purine alkaloid theacrine (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 942).

Theobroma subincanum Martius—cacahuillo


A number of Amazonian tribes burn the bark of this cacao species and add the resulting ashes to snuffs, especially those from Virola spp. or tobacco (cf. Nicotiana tabacum) (Schultes 1978a, 187*). The powdered inner bark, mixed with tobacco, is said to be used as a hallucinogen (Duke and Vasquez 1994, 169*).

It has been suggested that Theobroma cacao may have been derived through the cultivation of this Amazonian species (Baumann and Seitz 1994, 942).



See also the entries for Erythroxylum cocaTheobroma cacao, balche’snuff, and caffeine.


Baumann, Thomas, and Renate Seitz. 1994. Theobroma. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:941–55. Berlin: Springer.


de Aguiar Falcão, Martha, and Eduardo Lleras. 1983. Aspectos fenológicos, ecológicos e de produtividade do cupuaçu—Theobroma grandiflorum (Willd. ex Spreng.) Schum. Acta Amazônica 13 (5–6): 725–735.



This unidentified Mexican plant, known in Aztecan as cacahuaxochitl, “cacao flower/plant,” was used to flavor cacao. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)



Wild cacao (Theobroma bicolor)



In Peru, the ashes of the leaves of a Theobroma species are used as an alkaline additive to coca. The black mass (llipta de cacao) has a pungent taste.