Chocolate has been on my mind a lot lately. We see great big heart shaped boxes of the stuff starting the day after Christmas. Kate Dolan writes about growing chocolateAnd I always try to eat as much as I can before the start of Lent, when I usually give up chocolate for 40 days as a reminder of Christ’s suffering on our behalf. (Yes, I will admit his suffering was a bit more intense than mere deprivation of chocolate. But then, he probably never tasted cocoa while he walked on the earth though I suspect it might be a staple up in heaven.)

In any case, with chocolate on the brain, it was a wonderful surprise to walk into the Conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Garden on Capitol Hill and see cacao pods growing on trees and have the chance to see and smell the beans during the different phases of processing. I had read about the process before, but I didn’t have the imagination to make sense of it until I saw the demonstration at the Botanical Garden.

Kate Dolan writes about Cacao trees at the U.S. Botanical GardenThe pods don’t hang from the branches of cacao trees as I had assumed. Instead, they grow right along the trunk, looking like alien pod parasites ready to take over the tree. After the pods are harvested, the white beans inside are removed, fermented and then dried. When the dried beans are roasted and ground up, they form a paste referred to misleadingly as chocolate liquor. (It contains no alcohol, no sugar, and isn’t even a liquid.) This substance can be pressed into blocks (essentially baking chocolate) or separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids which are then ground into powder. Cocoa butter is pretty much all fat, so most of what we think of as chocolate flavor comes from the solids.

There, I gave you a description just like the one that made no sense to me. I can include the pictures of the different stages, but until they invent a scratch and sniff screen, I am unable to pass along the smell samples that we enjoyed at the gardens.

The U.S. Botanical Gardens in Washington are a treasure often overlooked by tourists and locals alike. My husband has worked in D.C. since the 1970s and until this visit, he had never set foot inside the glass building just steps from the capitol. Like most of the museums in the area, it is free to enter and is open every day.

So that’s how you get the free day trip to Hawaii. The gardens are divided into different collections, each one a separate habitat taking you all around the world and even into the prehistoric past. You can explore the remote volcanic islands of Hawaii, stroll through the Mediterranean, wander the desert, get lost in the rain forest, and see how food and medicinal plants grow. You can even visit the “Garden Priveval,” featuring plants from the Jurassic era. (The only dinosaur in evidence was small and very quiet.)

A walk through the Conservatory of the Botanic Gardens is a mini vacation, especially during the dreary winter months. We did not have time to explore the outdoor gardens, which just gives us another reason to go back.

So when you visit D.C., it’s nice to see the major landmarks, but I urge you to make time for a museum that all of your senses will enjoy. Breathe in the aroma of life from all over our planet. And it might just be possible to forget all the craziness going on in the rest of our capital city.


For hours, location and more information so you can see chocolate grow for yourself, visit

If you like reading about tropical islands and plants, you might enjoy my novel, Avery’s Treasure which explores Caribbean islands.