Day 2 at La Granja Luker started at 6am, 15 minutes after sunrise. I collected fresh cocoa flowers that had just opened during the night from a specific type of cacao. These would be used after breakfast for pollination.
Cocoa flowers are perfect soft coloured pentagrams growing from a short stem (a bit like thin cherry stem) directly on the bark. Although they are only about 15mm from edge to edge, they contain: 5 white petals, 5 light green pockets containing pollen (which the workers called condoms), 5 brown estaminets protecting the centre, the female part of the flower. Cocoa flowers are hermaphrodite. Unlike many other exotic flowers, they are not bright and do not produce fragrance that would attract the birds and the bees.
Instead they rely on tiny mosquitos called Forcipomya that are hungry for the amino acids contained in the pollen. These mosquitos invisible to the human eye fertilize the flowers by moving the pollen to the ovary of the fresh flowers within 24 hours of the flowers opening. Needless to day that if the sex life of humans was as convoluted as the sex life of cocoa flowers, the human race would be doomed to extinction.
Flesh flowers are purer in colours and their estaminets stand straighter than the older flowers no longer fertile. Its pretty straight forward to see the difference if you score 20 in each eye. Once we had gathered enough fresh flowers, we left them to warm up on a shallow shaded brick wall.
Breakfast is a special moment for all the inhabitants of the hacienda. And I do mean all the inhabitants which, apart from the humans, include so far 7 dogs, 3 cats, 2 roosters, countless chickens and one parrot. At 8 am sharp surrounded by the animals we all sat and shared eggs, rice with beans, corn tortilla called arepas and of course drank a bowl of hot chocolate, like every family in Colombia every day made from water, cacao liquor and panela.
After breakfast I followed Gilberto, the longest standing employee of La Granja who has an incredible 45 years of experience growing cacao fino di aroma and an encyclopaedia of knowledge. La Granja over the last 5 years has researched the compatibility of cacao flowers for be pollisation. Some flowers are auto-compatible, some auto-incompatible, some cross-compatible and some cross-incompatible depending on what they are matched with. Gilberto is the ultimate cacao match maker. Over the next few hours, he taught me patiently how to make pod babies and hand pollinate cocoa flowers. First he handed me tweezers. I knew my brows probably needed plucking but could not see the relevance in the jungle. Pollination is delicate and difficult, especially in an environment that is hot, humid, and dense with vegetation and home to a myriad of beasties. First I had to choose a tree with fresh flowers. Then using tweezers, I gently removed 2 of the pollen pockets and estaminets to expose the small white dome that contains the ovary. I took one of the flowers cut earlier from a small pouch hanging from my neck and proceeded to remove one condom and cut the tiny male pollen stick (apologies for the men who are reading this but I don't think the flowers hurt). Focusing my eyes back on the chosen flower on the tree, I then rubbed the male pollen stick from the cut flower onto its female centre. And if all goes well a baby pod, not bigger than 2mm, will show in 10 days. My flowers are marked and I will be told in time if I was a good matchmaker. Gilberto smiled as he looked at my handy work and said mucho bueno. I think he was proud of me so I am hopeful that I've made a few pod babies.
Without manual pollination only one flower in 1500 will grow into to a precious pod containing at 40-50 beans (one bean for every ovule fecund). With manual pollination, one in 200 flowers can grow into a pod. It is a natural way to increase the output of beans from a plantation and the income for the farmer, ensuring long term sustainability of cacao growing and a fairer deal for growers. It just requires very steady hands, good eyesight, a pair of tweezers and a lot of tender loving care.
Have a productive week,
Miss Anne x