Coca, opium, marijuana and hundreds of other plants used to alter our perceived reality are nothing new to earlier cultures and civilizations. We often think of mood altering 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 as were certain mushrooms and even the sap of the angel trumpet tree. As in the case of the angel trumpet, it can be also very poisonous so only the shamans of South and Central America might be trusted with its use. Many of the substances derived from these plants are now illegal in some countries due to 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 around 400 B.C. They believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl the god of wisdom. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and to give strength. Originally it was prepared as a drink mixed with spices or corn puree. After its arrival to Europe in the 1500’s, sugar was added to it 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 on the world market. High labor costs and inadequate marketing were probably the limiting factors. Even marijuana was grown legally in the past and is now being made legal with some restrictions. 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 due to the interest of local farmers, retailers and foodies. They organized to form several chocolate groups statewide to promote growing, production and marketing of Hawaiian chocolate. Some delicious confections are now available on the local market and are ideal gourmet gifts to share with friends, family and visitors to Hawaii.
Cocoa, or Theobroma cacao as it is known scientifically, is ornamental as well as useful. What Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is complete without chocolate?
Cocoa and tea both grow well on the Big Island. Even though cocoa is thought to be a native to the Amazon area just north of the equator, it may have been grown in Mexico for thousands of years. In Indonesia, Malaysia 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 and East Hawaii, however cocoa plants do not like drying winds or beach locations.
Tea plants may also be found in Big Island gardens. Most folks believe 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 may be grown in areas extending from equatorial to temperate zones. Tea belongs to the camellia family. Its correct botanical name is Camellia sinensis, and is closely related to horticultural Camellia varieties that bloom magnificently in many home gardens and public parks.
The tea plant is an attractive evergreen shrub native to Assam. There are about a thousand varieties known that differ in flower and shade of green leaves as well as flavor when brewed.
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 like Kona coffee.
For further information contact the UHCTAHR Master Gardener Helpline at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hilo.