Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Spooky

Becky Emerson Carlberg
My neighbor's Jack-o-lanterns.

It’s a spooky time, and I’m not just talking about Halloween. The article “All trick, no treat?” in the October-November 2021 issue of National Wildlife, was a sobering reminder of the high price of harvesting cocoa. The US chocolate industry is thriving to the tune of $20 billion a year!

The Good: Shade-grown cocoa agroforestry produces high quality sustainable chocolate. The cacao plants live among crops and trees. Rubber, guava and mango forest trees provide shade. Banana, plantain, coconuts and other crops are included which provide habitats for birds, butterflies, bats and other wildlife. The farmer’s incomes are enhanced and food assured.

The tropical cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is in the mallow family with okra and cotton. Originally from the upper Amazon region in South America, the delicate evergreen with large glossy leaves and shallow roots loves warm, humid environments. Cacao trees can grow 20 to 30 feet in height and width, but in the wild may soar to 60 feet. The small pink flowers are borne directly on the trunk and branches. After fertilization, green to red football shaped seed pods up to 12 inches long and 3 inches wide develop. Each contains 20 to 50 seeds. A mature tree can produce up to 70 pods. It takes 40 pods to make 2.2 pounds of cocoa paste.

Three hours of direct sunlight, but shade in the afternoon is necessary or the leaves will burn. The cacao plant requires rich soil and constant moisture. The slow-growing tree can be propagated in greenhouses if the grower is especially attentive. Blooms are produced when the tree reaches five years. The cacao tree can live forty years, twenty-five years if in commercial cultivation. The cacao plant is very sensitive to climate change.

The Bad: Two-thirds cocoa bean production is in West Africa’s Ivory Coast and Ghana. Because of the high demand for chocolate, 85% of forests have been destroyed (forest elephants, pygmy hippos and chimpanzees and their homes gone), replaced by monocrops of cacao plants. Apparently, there’s a lot of child labor and slavery involved. Eighty per cent of cacao farmers use organochlorines, neonicotinoids (bee and pollinator killers) and fungicides. Cacao farming uses more hazardous pesticides than any other cultivated crop except cotton, their relative. Chocolate tastes a little bitter?

What pollinates cocoa flowers? Not bees nor butterflies but a tiny biting midge in the Forcipomyia genus. Only 5% of the thousands of flowers on each cocoa plant are successfully pollinated; the rest must be artificially pollinated. Machetes are the tools used by farmers and kids to harvest cacao pods, resulting in many injuries, some permanent.

The chocolate belt stretches 20 degrees latitude both north and south of the equator. Largest producers are West Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Countries have their own cocoa pests. Cocoa swollen shoot virus was found in Ghana in 1936. Frosty pod fungi were discovered in Ecuador in 1895. Witches’ Broom fungi in South America, Panama and Caribbean noticed in 1785. Cocoa mealy bugs are native to southeast Asia. Cocoa mirids (true bugs with piercing mouth parts) live in western and central Africa. Cocoa pod borers inhabit in Saudi Arabia and Indonesian countries. Seven species of the devastating Black pod disease, caused by swimming oomycetes, are found worldwide.

Look on chocolate labels for “Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance or Fair for Life.” The chocolate shopping guide website below ranks 80% of global chocolate brands based on social and environmental performance: Scroll past the subscription box and read. Lindt has its own self-verification program. Cadbury is working to have all products sustainably sourced by 2025. Hershey and Ghirardelli have issues. Consumers can make the difference. We have the power to shape the chocolate market. Sustainably sourced and produced chocolates cost more, but the cheap stuff is deadlier in so many other ways. Show your support for small-scale cacao farmers at Halloween and the Holiday season!

Speaking of, Halloween comes tomorrow night. A spooky time of year the veil between the living and dead grows thin. Light carved pumpkins and wear costumes to fool the evil spirits. Over 3,000 years ago, ancient Celts thought nature ‘died’ by summer’s end, as had possibly some family or friends. The Gaelic word Samhain (Sow-ehn), which meant summer’s end, was what the celebration came to be called. Places were set at the table for the deceased. Wild stories were told. Sacrifices made. Bonfires blazed to thwart the soul-snatching fairies. The Celtic New Year arrived November 1st, ushering in an often-brutal winter.

Seventeen hundred years ago the Romans held Feralia, late October festival to honor their dead. Romans paid tribute to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The reason for eating or bobbing for apples.

Dying to get to the Beach at Halloween

Fifteen hundred years ago Christianity attempted to smother the pagan festivities by moving All Saint’s Day (honoring all saints and martyrs) from May 13th to Nov. 1st. Four hundred years later, All Soul’s Day was added Nov. 2nd. Both terribly somber days are observed at the same time as the Day of the Dead, an ancient Aztec tradition popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not yet extensively commercialized as has become Halloween, families connect, enjoy life, honor and celebrate their ancestors.

My own Halloween display, set up every year, features not only the 3-D frame of a haunted house with ghosts, bats, skeletons, pumpkins and witches hanging everywhere, but a small box behind it holds the names of my pets, friends and family that are no more.

This Halloween pay homage to your dead ones, sculpt your pumpkin(s), place the candy by the front door, put on your best disguise, pull out the Ouija Board, hold a seance, watch a scary movie, go trick or treating or…. eat lots of candy corn, but remember….

Only buy chocolates sustainably sourced and harvested. They are pricier. Put your money where your mouth is. Send the message to the chocolate industry: Stop Destroying the Rainforests.

Happy Halloween!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at

Good or bad chocolate?