The flowers that give us chocolate are ridiculously hard to pollinate | Science News

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The flowers that give us chocolate are ridiculously hard to pollinate

A complicated reproductive system makes pollination a tough job

By
7:00am, February 20, 2018
cacao flowers

FLOWERS FOR CHOCOLATE  Pale petals curl over a cacao flower’s male parts. Here, two developing fruits, or seedpods (top left), will eventually ripen, housing the seeds that give the world chocolate.

It’s a wonder we have chocolate at all. Talk about persnickety, difficult flowers.

Arguably some of the most important seeds on the planet — they give us candy bars and hot cocoa, after all — come from pods created by dime-sized flowers on cacao trees. Yet those flowers make pollination just barely possible.

Growers of commercial fruit crops expect 50 to 60 percent of flowers to make a fruit, or pod, says Emily Kearney of the University of California, Berkeley. In some places, cacao crops manage to be that prolific. But worldwide norms run closer to 15 to 30 percent. In the traditional Ecuadorian plantings that Kearney studies, cacao achieves a mere 3 to 5 percent pollination.

The first sight of a blooming cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) can be “disconcerting,” Kearney says. That’s because most flowers come directly out of the trunk, rather than sprouting from branches as in many other trees. For cacao, special trunk pads

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