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UM's Very Own Cocoa Tree

by Vanessa Ting

Cornering the Ambang Asuhan Jepun is a dense, low-growing tree with two trunks.

Not really. If you look carefully, there are two trees, one with a strangely-pockmarked trunk growing quite happily under the shade of the taller tree. This smaller tree is a Cocoa Tree (Theobroma cacao) or Pokok Koko, which actually needs the help of its larger friend for it to grow.

In its natural habitat, tropical rainforests, the Cocoa Tree is an understorey tree. Direct sunlight causes stress to the tree, shortening its lifespan and making it unable to withstand pests and disease.

Native to South America, cocoa was used as early as 1750 BC, and revered by the ancient Mayans as a food of the Gods, which explains its genus name theos (god in Greek) and broma (food, also in Greek). Cocoa Trees were introduced to Malaysia in the 1950's as a plantation crop, but is now losing out to oil palm plantations.

This small tree grows to an average of five to ten metres, with simple, oval-oblong leaves. The flowers can form on the main stem or the branches, which explains the pitted appearance of the trunk.

If pollinated, these flowers give way to fruits which are oblong in shape, and will ripen into a light yellow. The pulp is edible, although scanty, and the seeds of the cocoa fruit are the cocoa beans which yield cocoa butter and chocolate.

Suckers are twigs that grow in an upwards direction out of the trunk. If they grow at the base of the tree, they should be pruned off. If an old cocoa tree no longer produces much fruit, it can be chopped off at the trunk and these low-growing suckers will take over the root system, eventually growing into a new, young tree.

In the meantime, UM's Cocoa Tree shows no sign of slowing down, judging by its many flowers and fruits!

Happiest when surrounded by books, Vanessa Ting finds herself thriving in the no-less-fascinating world of conservation biology. This mostly involves exponential (learning and topographical) curves trailing after energetic zoologists and botanists. She can be reached at vcc.ting@gmail.com.

#articles #treesofum #theobromacacao #cocoatree #vanessating

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