Legal mood enhancers like chocolate nothing new in Hawaii

  • Cacao trees may be easily grown from seed found in these attractive fruit. They may also be available by contacting one of the Cacao Associations or some local nurseries. (Voltaire Moise/Courtesy photo)

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 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 BC. They believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. It was believed to be an aphrodesiac and to give strength. Originally it was prepared as a drink mixed with spices or corn puree. After its arrival to Europe in the 1500s, 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 inadaquate marketing were probably the limiting factors. Even marajuana 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 due to 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 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 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 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. For example, it grows in Southern Russia near the Caucasus mountains on the latitude of 40 degrees N, and in Argentina near the latitude 30 degrees S. 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 is closely related to horticultural Camellia varieties wthat 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.

The stimulating drink was originally used medicinally but since the fifth century has been the chief beverage in China. It became popular in Europe in the seventeenth 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 like Kona coffee.

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

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