Tropical Gardening: Legal mood enhancers such as chocolate nothing new in Hawaii

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Cacao trees can be easily grown from seed found in these attractive fruit. They also might be available by contacting one of the cacao associations or some local nurseries.

We sometimes think of mood enhancing drugs with trepidation, but they have been part of the human condition for thousands of years.

Marijuana, opium poppies and coca leaf have been used for centuries, as were certain mushrooms and even the sap of the Angel Trumpet tree. Many of the substances derived from these plants are now illegal in some countries because of the possibility of dangerous misuse. In the case of Angel Trumpet sap, it can easily kill you if ingested.


Others are so much a part of our culture that we hardly give them second thought. These include coffee, tea and chocolate.

For example, chocolate is associated with enhancing romance and elevating our mood. The history of chocolate began with the Aztecs about 400 BC. They believed cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and to give strength. After its arrival to Europe in the 1500s, sugar was added and it became popular with the rich and poor.

Many years ago, cocoa and tea were considered commercial crops in Hawaii, along with coffee. They grew well and produced very good quality, but could not compete in the world market. High labor costs and inadequate marketing were probably the limiting factors. Even marijuana was grown legally in the past and is being again seriously considered.

As we look at potential profitable crops, there are some to consider that most folks would approve. Hawaiian kava and mamake come to mind since they are uniquely associated with Hawaiian culture.

However, as we look at new and interesting ways to garden and farm, we sometimes find a new look at old crops gives us a new perspective. Cacao is one that looks very promising now because of the interest of local farmers, retailers and foodies. They organized to form the Kona Cacao Association. There is also a statewide Hawaii Chocolate and Cacao Association.

Cocoa, or Theobroma cacao as it is known scientifically, is ornamental as well as useful. What Valentine’s Day or Mothers Day is complete without chocolate?

Cocoa and tea grow well on the Big Island. In Borneo and tropical Africa there are thousands of acres in production where the climate is warm, steamy and wet like East Hawaii. It is also found in many gardens growing well in Kona; however, cocoa plants do not like drying winds or beach locations.

Tea plants can also be found in Big Island gardens. Most folks think tea is a crop grown in and confined to equatorial countries. This however is a misconception. Tea grows in a wide range of climates and can be grown in areas extending from equatorial to temperate zones. For example, it grows well up to 5,000 feet in Kaloko mauka.

Tea belongs to the Camellia family. Its correct botanical name is Camellia sinensis, and it is closely related to horticultural Camellia varieties that bloom magnificently in many home gardens and public parks.

There are about a thousand varieties of tea known that differ in flower and shade of green leaves as well as flavor when brewed.

The stimulating drink was originally used medicinally, but since the 5th century has been the chief beverage in China. It became popular in Europe in the 17th century and was America’s chief beverage until the Boston Tea Party.

An alkaloid, like caffeine, and a volatile oil give tea its flavor. Long brewing extracts tannin, which is bitter and not considered beneficial.


Locating plants is not easy, but once planted and established, maintenance is no trouble. Some nurseries do carry tea and cocoa plants on occasion. These crops are usually grown where labor costs are low. In Hawaii, tea and cocoa are worth considering for a more interesting garden as well as boutique crops such as Kona coffee.

For further information, contact the Master Gardener Helpline at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hilo.

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