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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Cocoa and chocolate

The hand-coloured plate shown here reveals the constituent parts of the cocoa or chocolate tree (theobroma cacao) and this particular plant was drawn from a specimen in the tropical house of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

The plant is native to southern and central American regions and was introduced to Europe in the 16th century after European explorers encountered native inhabitants’ consumption of ‘agreeable and nutritious beverages’ made from cocoa and chocolate.

Cocoa is regarded as the healthier derivative, due to the fatty cocoa butter being removed in the production process, though the two by-products are formed by similar methods, which involve roasting, crushing and refining the beans.

The constituent parts of the cocoa or chocolate tree, including its fruit, leaves and branchesThe constituent parts of the cocoa or chocolate treeThe cacao plant, genus of infinite cravings and whose many derivatives populate uncountable confectionery shelves of newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations worldwide, is naturally sweet – though more sugar is often added to make common products even more desirable.

Our need for chocolate products is also due to the effects the alkaloid chemicals it contains have on the brain and serotonin levels. Theobromine, an alkaloid present in chocolate and indeed deriving its name from the genus of the cocoa tree, can cause a reduction in blood pressure and also acts as a stimulant, producing similar effects to those of caffeine.

Both of the authors of this four-volume work of medical botany have associations with King's. Robert Bentley (1821-93) became professor of botany at King's in 1859 and Henry Trimen (1843-96) was curator of the anatomical museum in 1866-7. There are over 300 entries and each contains a physical description of the plant and its varieties, habitats, botanical classification, commercial and medicinal uses and chemical composition.

Each entry is accompanied by a precise hand-coloured plate drawn by the botanist David Blair, who had previously illustrated James Britten's European ferns (1879). To aid plant identification there are also several line drawings of the parts of each plant.

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