December 2, 2011

Several Dozen Words About Pesticide Safety 

The FIRST thing to use when handling
any pesticides; nitrile gloves

Over the last 40-plus years that I have grown plants, I have seen a major shift in the feelings about pesticides. As a child, I remember my father using a smelly gray granule on ant mounds to get rid of pesky ants. 2 decades ago, I remember looking at the 40 year-old container, stuck in the back corner of a tool shed, to see that it was a cyanide compound ! I hear many tales of gardeners long ago, using nicotine sulfate on their vegetable gardens, mercury fungicides on millions of tons of grain crops, arsenic to control grasshoppers, and a very wide range of compounds that are eminently lethal to just about everything.

Today, modern pesticides are a great deal safer than 50 years ago, but are still toxic in specific ways. We have a far better understanding of how these products work, as well as their impacts on us, wildlife, and the environment at large. We should still look carefully at pesticide use. Here in Miami we are experiencing outbreaks of a number of pests, including Rugose whitefly, Gumbo Limbo scale, and the newly-introduced Red Palm Mite. In many states, emerald ash borer is a major threat to forests, and the list goes on. Locally, there is a high demand for pest control companies to use insecticides to control whiteflies on Ficus trees to avoid the trees' defoliation. In an area with a very high water table ( less than 10 feet below ground), the widespread and protracted use of any pesticide is cause for concern, and should be examined carefully.

I read an online article citing that several million bees were found dead on the east coast of Florida recently, a massive synchronous death that points toward the use of aerial pesticides for mosquito control. What are the risks of using such products, in populated areas ? The applicators would say that the risks are minimal, and that may be true. The point to be made is that we should all look at our individual use of pesticides, as we would our demand for electricity and water, and our production of waste products. There are commercial users of all these commodities, and we won't change their habits easily, but we can change ours.  

VERY cheap protection for your face
 Organic insecticides still have risk factors to them, since they sometimes need to be used more frequently and at higher rates to get the control the customer wants. While such products have a greater safety margin than the synthetic products, they should should still be used cautiously. Any product, even the most basic ones such as sulfur and diatomaceous earth, have risk factors. Use them judiciously, and follow the label directions exactly. The acronym PPE ( personal protective equipment) has become quite the buzz-term in pest control. I know of a number of older growers with various tumors, missing fingernails, and missing anatomy due to carelessness with pesticides decades ago. I recommend the greatest amount of PPE you can tolerate wearing. 

dust mask for working with
dry pesticides and dusty potting materials
to be worn under the face shield

For most off-the-shelf products, the minimum PPE would consist of nitrile gloves, a dust mask with an N90 rating or higher, and a face shield to prevent products from splashing your face. After I got some miticide spray on my face during a wind gust a decade ago, I became a believer in full-face protection, not just goggles. The better solution is to wear a disposable painter's suit ( usually made of Tyvek fabric), in addition to face and hand protection if you are spraying an area. If you are using a small hand sprayer for a few plants, or root-drenching plants with a systemic insecticide, I still recommend a face shield and gloves. The face shields are quite cheap, and can save you a lot of pain in the chance event of some back splash from your pesticide products. 

As with all pesticides, use the minimum amount of any product to do the job, and examine the circumstances that allowed the pest population to boom. Changing the density of a planting, increasing sunlight, and diversifying plant groups can help a lot with pest control. Pesticides, in most cases ( even water can be a good pesticide) can be a hazard to your health when used improperly. Follow the product label; it is the law. Protect yourself and the environment. Use caution, use protective gear, and be aware of where your pesticides drift or get spread out. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 


November 15, 2011

"Soilless" soil ?

a near-perfect soilless mix:
equal parts of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite
Many gardeners have worked with artificial soil mixes, sometimes called "soil-less" soils, which is sort of a misnomer. This implies that "real" soil is organic, of the Earth, and only occurs naturally. For most of us, if it's outside in the yard, it's soil. If, according to my Mother, it's on my shoes when I walk in the house, it's DIRT. Perhaps I can shed some light to the idea of artificial soils, and the topic is no small affair to clarify, since there are so many components and mixtures to choose from. Let's look at the most common components.  

One of the most important things to remember is that artificial soils are usually made to grow plants in pots in greenhouses, where plants need a very stable supply of water, and where the plants are produced in a few months to a year at most. These mixes are not very suitable outdoors in the wettest parts of the year. They are often used in propagation beds and with high-demand plants like annuals, Poinsettias, Chrysanthemums, and many perennial plants in small pots.  

The standard of many Begonia and fern growers

Most of these soilless mixes have a finite life in the pot, since the organic components break down, compact, and rob the root system of air. There are other aspects to using soilless mixes for fast-growing, moisture-loving plants, too. In the time that the mix is functional, the plants can grow well, but the grower must realize that as the plants root into the mix, the pots become full of roots, the mix becomes dense with roots, and the plants can choke themselves to death rather fast. One way to increase the life of a solless mix, and thereby increase the longevity of the plant in the pot, is to remove the organic aspect of a mix, leaving just inorganic materials such as calcined clay, perlite, or pumice in the mix. This has become a trend in many propagation bed procedures, where the mix remains intact, and cuttings are rooted in it after the medium has been sterilized between batches of cuttings.     

Calcined Clay
aka Turface, Profile, Quick Dry

Many Bonsai, Cycad, and aquatic plant growers are using calcined clay as part of their potting mixes, and in some cases, using 100% calcined clay  as the sole medium. The water percolation and subsequent air drainage is excellent. This ingredient also hold fertilizer well. many soilless mixtures hold fertilizer very well, a boon to the grower, but a possible hazard to the plant if the mix dries out, leaving high concentrations of fertilizer left in the mix. It is important in any containerized potting mix to occasionally flush the fertilizer residues out of the pot by repeated heavy waterings. Rainwater or distilled water can be excellent for this purpose. 

Soilless mixes, also called "artificial soil" can be a huge benefit to growers of high-demand plants, but growers and hobbyists need to understand the short-comings of the mixes. Inorganic soils can be used effectively, but as with all soil components, each has its quirks. Caveat emptor.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


November 3, 2011

Managing Storm Damage in Your Garden

Hard to recover a tree in this condition,
but possible.
In this section of the country, storms of various sorts assault us now and then. We have tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, downburst cells, and lightning hits. There are several forces at work in the damage these storms can cause, and as a gardeners you should be aware of the suite of problems that can arise.
You should also be aware of what NOT to do, such as "hurricane pruning".

One of the unseen dangers of protracted rainfall is that the soil can become super-saturated, and allow trees to fall over with only moderate wind gusts. This tactic is likened to a spoon in a bowl of Jello; it can move easily in any direction. Since we have such weather problems, I suggest  people keep their trees trimmed in such a way as to allow wind to pass through them easily, but this is not "hurricane pruning". An experienced arborist can remove selected parts of the canopy while maintaining the structural integrity of the tree. Overwatering and over-fertilizing can also lead to a dense canopy of soft wood and soft foliage, prone to breakage in weather events.

This iconic photo shows what can
happen in a hurricane.
This palm would be unfazed
by the damage, but may succumb
to root stress.  

Palms NEVER need "hurricane pruning" ! Palms are designed to withstand even fierce winds, and rarely blow over if they have solid root systems. palms usually have fairly strong root systems, provided they are furnished with enough potassium, and a fairly low nitrogen level. A 12-4-12, 12-4-15 or equivalent type of Palm Special fertilizer is adequate for the needs of most palms. Very high nitrogen products such as most turf fertilizers, will foster a lot of foliage and fewer roots than desired. 

If palms and trees are damaged, tend to broken limbs immediately, using razor sharp tools, and make the cuts as cleanly as possible. In the case of trees, cutting very close to, but not into, the ring of tissue surrounding the base of the branch ( the bark "collar") is good arbor practice. Palm fronds should be cut to the nearest broken part of the frond leaving as much of the frond intact as possible. Where trees and palms can be stood up after a storm, the soil should be watered into place to eliminate air pockets, and the roots should be well watered for several months to allow new roots to form. Expect a recovery time of 3-5 years  after such trauma, and even longer for trees older than 30 years.

A tree will recover from this type
of damage, but will need 7-12 years to
get a solid structure again

One big mistake people make after storms damage their trees is to fertilize them, thinking that the roots will grow faster if there is ample fertility in place. The truth is just the opposite: concentrated fertilizers applied after a major root trauma can burn roots to death, and kill the tree or palm shortly afterward. It is wise to wait 4-6 months after the trauma, and fertilize at 1/2 the normal rate until a full set of new leaves or fronds can be produced. In the cases of old palms and trees, they make not recover fully for 7-10 years, so monitor them carefully, looking for the rate at which new fronds or leaves are produced, versus those which drop off. If the new vs old ratio is better than  1:1, you're on the right track.

The main messages to remember about recovering trees and palms after a major weather problem are to treat them carefully, removing drought stress, making sure they are secured in the ground until they-re-root, and fertilizing them gently until full recovery is attained. Damage can come from even modest storms, which can have violent, very localized damage, sometimes affecting one tree in the middle of a group. There are many ways storms can damage a garden, from rain, wind, lightning, flying object debris, and so on. Lightning is one of the most dangerous, since it arrives without warning, and of unknown strength. It can be accompanied by supernatural wind bursts, sometimes called downburst cells, which can squash a 400 ton jetliner to the ground like a bug.    

Lightning strike on
Queen Palm group

Lightning can kill one palm in a grove, but the "side shocks" from the strike can kill plants up to 50 feet away. Downburst wind cells can fell an entire group of trees in a counter-rotating pinwheel arrangement, defying any law of reason. You can't prevent the damage, but you can become educated about repairing your garden's primary residents. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens         


October 18, 2011

And You Thought YOUR Snails Were Big.........

Giant African Land Snail

Recently there has been an incidence of Giant African Land Snails abbreviated as GALS, in the Coral Gables neighborhood in Miami. The local residents have seen a few snails here and there, but as with all introduced pests of any size, it is cause for caution and observation. 

Make no mistake about the creature, it is a large snail, with a shell measuring over 6 inches long. As with many snails, it has an appetite for plants, and this species can eat a LOT of plant material. It would be bad enough if the snail just ate plants, but this species also carries a disease that can affect your health: meningitis. The snails are available through pet stores worldwide, and are used in religious ceremonies, especially by Caribbean religions. After a boy smuggled a few snails into Miami as pets in the 1970s, they quickly became a serious pest. The Department of Agriculture eradicated them in 3 years after a protracted program of hand-catching the snails using a house-by-house search method. Within the last 6 months, the snails have been seen in local areas, and the search begins again for these invasive pests. 

Fortunately, the snails can be eradicated using the same control protocols as other snails. Snail baits and organic snail controls will work but you must use them diligently to get the full degree of control. This is one pest which we need to leave the state permanently. I do not support the idea of eradicating all snails, but several species in Miami are serious pests, and we don't need a Godzilla version of a pest to start a family in our neighborhoods. 

This species is another example of how an escaped pet can wreak havoc in our area. South Florida has the warmest and rainiest climate on the continent. We are unfortunately the crossroads of animal and plant trade for the US, and both of them "escape" into the Everglades, as well as into other states. Several excellent examples of this are Imported Fire Ants, Asian Cycad Scale, Old World Climbing Fern, and Hydrilla Fern. We enjoy this amenable climate, but we need to protect it far better than we do. The exotic pet trade has allowed many animals into homes, and then into local environments, including iguanas, pythons, and monitor lizards. Giant Land Snails are just as unwelcome, and should be controlled diligently. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens                           

October 8, 2011

Can we really plant Hummingbird gardens ?

male Ruby-Throat Hummingbird

I believe the answer is "yes". It would be safe to say that, as with butterfly gardens, it is not a plant-a-few-plants-and-they-will-arrive scenario. As with butterflies, hummingbirds enjoy sunlight, plenty of plants to feed on, and instant availability of shade cover in which to escape from predators. Planting a wide variety of plants attractive to butterflies often nets the added benefit of attracting 'hummers'.

In this section of the country, we have a small selection of hummingbird species, even during migration season. By far the most common species is the Ruby-Throat, and if you're really lucky, you'll see the emerald green flash of a male bird, about the size of a small dragonfly, and moving even faster. The bird's ability to defy the laws of aerodynamic flight is simply amazing. The birds can start and stop in no time at all, and they are fun to watch if a group gets together in a feeding area. The border wars for feeding areas between dueling male hummers is quite a show. 

The Hummingbird Tree
Sesbania grandiflora
 Attracting these flying jewels is a game of patience and skill. They take a long time to find new plants to feed on, and are wary of intruders, especially pets. The birds feed on a very wide range of plants, as long as there is ample nectar to feed on. A lot of bird books state that the birds feed mostly on red, tubular flowers. Our hummers at Pinecrest gardens feed on yellow shrimp plants, purple Hong Kong Orchid Trees, blue bromeliads, orange heliconias, and anything else in their range of vision.  I am convinced that our local birds are illiterate, and have not read the books ! It is true that red tubular flowers such as Lobelia, Salvia, Russellia and Bignonia are on the list of favorites.

Firecracker Plant
Russellia equisetifolia

In South Florida gardens, there are lots of flowers for hummers to feed on, and a few of my recommendations include the blue-flowered bromeliad Portea petropolitana ; a Dwarf Orchid Tree , Bauhinia divaricata; Yellow Shrimp plant, Beloperone guttata; and Firecracker Plant, Russellia equisetiformis. Install attractor plants in large groups of 8-15 plants, in areas where the birds can dash under cover fast ( they do everything fast). A better term for such a garden would be "wildlife garden", since a wide range of flowering plants will attract many types of wildlife, including hummers, butterflies, nectar-feeding birds, and a range of others. 

Yellow Shrimp Plant
Beloperone guttata
 It is best to mix plants that need shade as well as those needing a lot of sunlight. An attractive garden can be made that will serve many needs; attract wildlife, have a wide range of colors and provide shelter for birds. Rather than plant a garden for just one purpose, plant a garden that does a lot of things at the same time. Fragrance and color and even edible plants can be mixed without trouble, and the availability of interesting plants has never been better. 

Hong Kong Orchid Tree
Bauhinia x blakeana

Portea petropolitana
whose flowers literally drip nectar
 If we start to look at gardens as a holistic part of your home, where plants have form, function, and beauty, then gardens take on the importance I feel they should have. So many people have a house and "some landscaping". They are part of each other, and should be cared for and budgeted as such. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest gardens        

October 4, 2011

Preparing Your Garden and Turf for Autumn

NOT a Miami Autumn.....

"Autumn" in South Florida is such a subtle concept that you would need a calendar to know when it happened. Perhaps the more accurate terms for what Northerners would call Autumn would the "less rainy" season, or the "I don't sweat all day" season. It means that days are getting shorter, the heavy rain and high humidity will slowly diminish but the daytime heat will continue. This means several things for your garden. Grass will still need watering, but by November, it will need less, as it will respond to short daylengths and start to slow down. You can help this by using a lower-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 15-0-15 or even a 12-2-12. The equal balance of the first and third numbers is important, since it fosters root and stem development, not so much leaf and grass growth. 

New Guinea Impatiens

Trees will really slow down growth, and some have stopped already. We might even see some light defoliation in the very dry days of November or December. This is the time of year to give them less nitrogen, and more potassium. The same types of fertilizer for palms can be used very effectively on palms and trees together. Flower gardens should be cultivated and cleaned before the winter annuals or vegetables are planted. Mulch should be applied to keep roots moist, and to retard weed growth from the crop of weeds which set seed in the short days. This is a good time to fertilize to get iron and manganese into plants before the soil is too cool to allow plants to get it from granular fertilizer.   

one our favorite Fall trees-
Silk Floss- Chorisia speciosa

Miami Autumn ( or Summer, or Winter)

There are numerous plants which get going in the cooler Fall weather, as the stress of summer heat wears off. Rhizomatous Begonias, ferns and roses really start growing starting in October. Fertilize them with controlled-release fertilizers, as well as some liquid iron and manganese to get the plants pumped up on these metals before the cooler days are here. Many annuals are ready to plant, as are a wide variety of herbs and vegetables. You can start seeds of Spring plants now and grow them through the winter for planting in March. This is also a great time to tend to greenhouse and shadehouse repairs before winter storms are upon us.

Cherry Tomato seedlings

The weather will remain warm for another 8-10 weeks, and the soil will remain warm even longer. This is the time to use organic fertilizers wherever possible to avail ourselves of the warm soil to start the breakdown into usable nutrients. Compost, eggshells, and  coffee grounds make excellent soil additives. Many plants and trees enjoy the break form the brutal summer sun, but beware of trying to over-do fertilizer and be careful of trimming too much. Although the weather is still warm, the plants will start to slow down, and won't regenerate growth very quickly. 

Get plants pumped up for the winter, starting now. Reduce fertilizer in your gardens in December, and resume in March when the daylength gets appreciably longer. Plants will "wake up" at the Spring equinox.          

The Iconic Impatiens
We're entering the season of amenable weather. Prepare your garden for the tandem duties of some plants going to sleep for the winter, and some plants just starting lives in the short days. Enjoy the weather and your garden as well.
Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


September 28, 2011

Growing Standard Water Lilies Successfully

'Red Flare'
a tropical night bloomer

 Water gardening has become very popular in many areas, and justly so; the availability of great aquatic plants has never been better. Years ago, water lilies were the domain of large gardens and large ponds. The availability of plants at retail garden centers was poor at best. In recent years, the production of water plants has increased, but the quality of plants at retail centers is still less than it could be. I wonder if the supply:demand curve may have something to do with the lack of education on the customer's side of economics. I believe the true reason is more subtle: people don't want to get wet ! Locally, people feel that water gardens are high-maintenance mosquito attractors. The mosquito problem can be solved easily and economically by adding a few surface-feeding fish like guppies, gouramis, paradise fish or mosquito fish.  There are wonderful ways to have a great water garden in a small space, but homeowners need to be educated on a few details.   

'Star of Zanzibar'
gorgeous flowers and beautiful foliage
 As with so many facets of gardening, research and education are key to success. There are lots of on-line, local water gardener, and university resources to use to find out which plants will grow well in your climate. All waterlilies are in the genus Nymphaea. Some of the hardy lilies need a cold rest to grow well, whereas some of the tropical types won't tolerate much cold at all. There are giant and miniature types in each group, and even some which will grow in a small water tub. Growing water lilies is actually pretty easy, but many people fail in the care of the pond and environment around the lily. The crown of the lily should be no more than 12 inches below the surface of the water, preferably 6 inches underwater. The lily pot should be big enough to allow for a year's growth, and some lilies can get BIG, well over 10 feet across. This means a serious tub of soil for the plant, not a 4 inch pot. Many large public gardens have lilies planted in shallow tubs as much as 6 feet across to allow the plants enough room to grow to maturity.     

professional water plant grower at
Missouri Botanical Garden
Australian species N. gigantea
 Small water tubs and ponds change water temperature very quickly. Large ponds change water temperature very slowly, which can be bad news when cold weather comes; the ponds will heat up very slowly. Solar-powered aerators can be a big boon in keeping water circulated throughout the pond. Potting soil can be used in a waterlily pot, but many growers prefer calcined clay mixtures, which look like clay-colored coffee grounds. These clay materials allow roots to penetrate the medium while still allowing oxygen into the root system. Fertilize your plants with slow-release fertilizer such as Dynamite or Pond Tabs 2 or 3 times in the growing season. Press the fertilizer into the mix near the stems and cover up the fertilizer with soil. Once exposed to abundant sunshine and in proper soil with fertilizer, water lilies can grow amazingly fast. The biggest problem people run into is that the water quickly turns green. This usually a short-term algae bloom, and will subside as the lily pads grow to cover the water surface. Water lilies thrive in sunshine, algae cannot grow in shade. As the leaves cover the water, the algae disappears.     

the very dwarf 'Helvola' hardy lily

the very giant 'Missouri' tropical lily,
with 10 inch blooms
with a plant easily growing to 12 feet across !

potting a waterlily
courtesy of GAP Photos

Try a few water lilies in an above-ground water pond to see if your conditions and your skills favor growing these aquatic beauties. A little success can go a long way to bolster your confidence. There is something magical about having a small water pond with fish in it, water lilies and other aquatic plants growing happily, and wildlife using the pond as an oasis.  

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


excellent for aquatic plants

September 23, 2011

Underwater Gardens ?
Why Not ! ?

Echinodorus amazonicus

Over the last 15 months I have written over 130 blogs about plants and all things terrestrial - horticultural. I thought it was well past due that I should speak about the world of underwater plants. The aquarium and water gardening business is a thriving one. Florida has a burgeoning set of aquatic businesses, split into several groups including aquatic plants and aquarium fish. It is indeed possible to have an underwater garden ( immersed), although the choices are more limited than a terrestrial above-water garden ( emersed). Very surprisingly, some "regular" foliage plant growers sell plants for the aquatic plant  market, a fact I found surprising when I worked in a foliage nursery 20 years ago. Quite a few "garden" plants can be grown underwater for a very long time. 

one of many beautiful

Cryptocoryne wendtii 'Red'

An aquatic Crinum lily ?
Yes, Crinum natans

Anubias pontederiifolia
The Coffee-Leaf Anubias
Many of the same criteria are needed for aquatic plants as for emersed plants: light, oxygen, and fertilizer, but in different proportions to the above-water landscape. Immersed plants need plenty of light, more than most people think. Good aquatic plant growers use at least 4 fluorescent light tubes on an aquarium. The better growers will use high-power fluorescent tubes in the 75-110 watt range per tube. Good oxygenation of the water helps in growing a great many aquatic plants, especially flowering plants. Aquatic plants need fertilizer,too, but great care must be taken not to overdose the aquarium with fertilizer salts. Aquatic plant growers suggest using purpose-built controlled release fertilizers such as Pond Tabs, Dynamite or Nutricote. Some aquarists correctly say that the fish will provide all the "fertilizer" the plants might need. 
The ideal state of an aquarium is to have a balance of plants and aquatic life such that they benefit each other equally.     

Dwarf Sagittaria
used as an underwater groundcover

Be careful not to over-plant an underwater garden ! Many aquatic plants grow fast, and can rapidly overtake an aquarium. Plant an aquarium sparsely at first and see how the plants adapt to your conditions. The aquarium becomes an underwater landscape. After you gain experience with aquatic plant growing, you'll see how well the fish and plants work well together. Many aquarists take pride in the underwater topography, landscape design and viewer perspectives of their aquariums. Give aquatic plants some credit for being a part of your garden.    

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 20, 2011

Coffee, Chocolate, Vanilla,
..........and?.........Tea !

Camellia thea

What else could there be to complete the world of great tastes and brews than Tea ? Empires have been made and lost on the sweat of workers and the hillsides in the tropics in cultivating tea, coffee, and chocolate. Tea is one of the oldest cultivated plants used for brewing, and is one of the simplest in terms of garden-to-market processing. It is, however, land-intensive, requiring large tracts of land and a LOT of hand labor to pick young tea leaves at just the right stage of maturity. The young leaves are dried, then packaged for sale and shipment. There are hundreds of varieties and dozens of ways to make tea as a drink, but they are all based on just one species of plant: Camellia thea.


Tea is grown in low mountainous areas, preferably with a mild climate. The major growing areas for tea are China, India, central-east Africa and Sri Lanka, but other countries produce tea in respectable quantities. Tea still ranks as one of the most widely consumed of all beverages, and has a long pedigree behind it, perhaps longer than any other brewed beverage. Fortunately, it is one of the simplest of all brews to make; add boiling water to tea leaves, wait a few minutes, then drink up !  

Green Tea leaves, freshly picked

The plant itself is fairly easy to grow, but is fairly tropical in its growing needs. It will tolerate some cold weather and light frosts, but will not likely grow in temperate areas for long. It requires acid soil, consistent irrigation, and regular inputs of iron and fertilizer.  

the finished product
Black Tea

One of the most interesting of all points to ponder:  how did someone centuries ago come up with the idea of boiling the dried leaves in water to make a drinkable beverage? The same query could be made for nature-based pharmaceuticals, foods, and a wide range of other natural products. Where did the "original" knowledge come from, and who will preserve the myriad subtle recipes for that natural knowledge ? As we move our world into more things synthetic, we should remember that many things natural are still useful. I'm sure that we would prefer real brewed tea over artificial tea, real coffee over instant coffee, and anyone who's tried artificial chocolate will always prefer the real stuff. Some the old ways are still the best ways. 

 Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 13, 2011

Grow Your Own Chocolate ?
Why Not ?

Cacao Tree
Theobroma cacao

 Last week I wrote a blog about Vanilla and where it comes from. I thought, "why not write a blog about its companion--Chocolate " ? Both Vanilla and Chocolate are tropical plants originally from the equatorial regions, now grown in many countries far from their home countries. Chocolate is an interesting tree in an unusual family, the Sterculiaceae, which contains both ornamental flowering and economical trees, including Cola, from whence comes some popular soft drinks.

Chocolate comes from a small tree, often called cacao. This is an interesting paradox, since the species of the commercial plant is Theobroma  cacao, and is both the common name of the plant as well as the products produced from the fruit. I can imagine how "cocoa" came about from "cacao". The tree is unremarkable when looking at it, with a rather scraggly appearance, tiny flowers, and strongly veined deep green parchment-like leaves. The pods are about the size of a large mango, and are often colored red or orange. 

Cacao pods
courtesy of Montoso Gardens

The most enlightening ( and disappointing) part of opening a cacao pod is that nothing looks, tastes, or smells like chocolate whatsoever. The seeds are covered in a furry-slippery aril that has a hint of taste, the seeds themselves are a bit bitter. So how did a global chocolate empire start with something that has essentially no taste ? The secrets lie in the seeds once they are roasted. It is  then the myriad and complex components are brought out, yet the raw seeds, called "nibs" still have rather little taste. The seeds are processed in many different ways, often adding components like alkali, cocoa butter and other concentrated fractions of the fruit back into the liquid cacao "liquor" to produce the vast selection of cocoa products available to the cuisine world. Fanciers of culinary chocolate ( as opposed to cooking chocolate) have their favorites from Venezuela, Colombia, Guinea, Ghana and Brazil. These raw products are processed into various region brands, such as French Valrhona, Belgian Callebaut, Venzuelan El Rey and so on.

Chocolate Tree foliage

The trees are fairly easy to grow in their preferred climate, but are intolerant of cold weather, dry winds, changes in climate, flooding, drought, insect damage, blazing sunshine, compacted soil, high pH water, calcium, or strong fertilizers. This plant classifies as a botanical curiosity in US gardens, and grows well for about 47 weeks a year, occasionally dying in the other weeks. Hawaii is the only place in the US where cacao can grow year round without fear of weather problems .

As with Breadfruit Trees and Sealing Wax Palms, this tender tropical plant is hard to grow well outdoors in Florida, but effortless in the warm rainy tropics. It is used a a boulevard planting in parts of inland Costa Rica ! If you want to grow a cacao tree, choose a large pot, filled with a well-drained acid soil mix. Incorporate organic fertilizers such as compost or well-aged manure, plus controlled-release fertilizer such as Nutricote, and even coffee-grounds ( how fitting). Plant the small plant into a large pot, and water with rainwater or distilled water to keep it moist, place it into a shady spot with filtered sunlight, and keep it out of strong winds. When the temperature is expected to drop below 50 F, bring it into a protected spot and make sure the roots stay above 60 F.  

The finished product !
Courtesy of Callebaut Chocolates

The tree is an interesting conversation piece to have in a garden, but don't expect to make great chocolate from it. The finished chocolate product is as far afield from the seed pod as ground coffee is from its wild origins. Commercial chocolate products are highly refined and "tuned" to make a specific set of tastes. There is a burgeoning culture which appreciates chocolate by using the same criteria as used for wine, with chocolate and wine tasting events, and of course, similar connoisseurs with the predictable vocabularies for their products. I just enjoy eating the finished products, from almost anywhere, on almost anything. Of course, adding chocolate to some vanilla desserts, downed with some rich Jamaican coffee, and perhaps some cinnamon.....................

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens