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Botanical garden fertilizes our love of chocolate with sprinkling of info

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

No, you haven’t entered Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Though there’s no ignoring the smell of that confection that fills your nostrils the moment you step foot in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Hardin Visitor Center.

That devilish, hidden aroma machine gets those olfactory senses tingling, and it’s hard not to make a beeline straight into the gift shop, throw down a few bills, and tear into a gourmet chocolate bar.

Focus! Remember that we came here not to eat up — though that will come later — but to drink in the new outdoor exhibit “Chocolate: Seed to Sweet.”

Open since Saturday, the traveling educational diversion features interactive, outdoor displays that spill the (cacao) beans about the history and use of chocolate around the world. The family-friendly show (read: kids can burn off a few kilowatts of energy) was organized by six leading botanical gardens around the country, including Atlanta’s, where it’s making its final stop.

The Midtown attraction has a well-earned reputation for hosting strong exhibits, starting with Dale Chihuly’s glowing glass creations in 2004 all the way up to Henry Moore’s sensuous, sculpture last year.

Unlike those, “Chocolate” is not a main course, a reason to queue up at the ticket window by itself. But if you treat it like it’s dessert after a nice meal — and with its Phase 2 expansion opened in May, the garden is offering more to take in than ever — you won’t be disappointed.

There’s also a host of accompanying programs, some aimed at, shall we say, more veteran chocoholics, to sweeten the deal.

“Who doesn’t love chocolate?” garden exhibitions manager Cathleen Hunt asks. “It’s a good attention getter, a good way to connect people and plants.”

Allow a half-hour to an hour to take in the exhibit, with its dozen stations and stops sited alongside the Piedmont Park side of Fuqua Conservatory. Just ignore the signage that refers to the show as “The Amazing Chocolate Tree,” the touring name that the Atlanta garden rejected because it led exhibit-goers elsewhere to expect to see an actual tree made of their favorite foodstuff.

That misguided expectation alone underlines the need to educate about chocolate, which is produced from the beans inside football-sized pods drooping down from cacao (pronounced ca-COW) tree trunks and limbs. The Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and Cameroon produce most of the world’s cacao.

“Chocolate: Seed to Sweet” begins with a 25-foot-long photo mural wall that’s a timeline of all things chocolate. The word itself comes from the Aztec “xocolatl,” which means “bitter water.”
Next is a 20-foot-tall inflatable cacao pod inside which guests can identify cacao beans and other rainforest plants.

Down a set of granite stairs and beside the aquatic plant pond is the best stop: a towering flower dome. Inside it, visitors are surrounded by the sights and sounds of the rainforest and witness, in a short multimedia show that includes puppetry, the opening of a giant cacao flower.
Folks find out that miracle couldn’t happen without the fine work of the midge (a gnat-sized insect), which pollinates the flowers and then flies off. The flowers make way for cacao pods, which hold 30 to 50 beans, enough to make about two chocolate bars.

The narrator of this show (still under construction when we visited) has a voice that sounds like Darth Vader, Hunt says, promising, “Kids will be excited.”

Small fry will also be pleased with the final stop, a “factory” where they can help roast, winnow, grind, mix and mold the raw material into edible chocolate by turning various levers and wheels.
There are no real cacao trees in the exhibit, but the garden has two inside the conservatory. They are not bean producers since conditions aren’t rainforest intense.

But fear not: A free sample of Dove chocolate awaits in the gift shop. The botanical garden put in a first order of 35,000 pieces, so no chocoholic should be denied.

Exhibit preview
“Chocolate: Seed to Sweets”

  • At Atlanta Botanical Garden through Jan. 2. September-October hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (until 10 p.m. Thursdays). $15, $12 seniors and ages 3-17; free under 3. 1345 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 404-876-5859, www.atlantabotanialgarden.org.
  • Special programming (free unless noted): There’s a “Mocha & Mudslides” theme during Cocktails in the Garden events, 6-10 p.m. Thursday nights. Chocolate Sundays cooking demonstrations by chocolatiers and chefs at noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sept. 12 and Oct. 10; and 2 p.m. Nov. 14 and Dec. 12. Chocolate lollipop-making (drop-in family classes), 2-3 p.m. Sept. 11, 18 and 25 ($6 per child). Holiday chocolate high teas, 1 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19 (price to be determined). Chocolate Passports will have kids exploring the garden, collecting stamps at stations where they learn about chocolate.

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