The unlikely survival of the humble avocado

Fascinating story here of how we got the avocado — something that was not a given by any means, as Maria Sharapova describes at The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings):

In the last week of April in 1685, English explorer and naturalist William Dampier — the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times — arrived on a small island in the Bay of Panama. Dampier made careful note of local tree species, but none fascinated him more than the tall “Avogato Pear-tree,” with its unusual fruit — “as big as a large Lemon,” green until ripe and then “a little yellowish,” with green flesh “as soft as Butter.” He described how the fruit were eaten — two or three days after picking, with the rind peeled — and their most common local preparation: with a pinch of salt and a roasted plantain, so that “a Man that’s hungry, may make a good meal of it.”

The most nutritious known fruit, the avocado — a member of the laurel family — should have grown extinct when the animals that fed on it and disseminated its enormous seeds did. Mercifully, it did not. It somehow managed to survive the Ice Age in Mexico and spread from there. But it also managed to survive its own self-defeating sexual relations. The tree’s small greenish blossoms are an example of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for bisexual blooming plants, which can typically self-pollinate. The avocado comes in two mirror-image varieties.

In some cultivars, the blossoms open up in their female guise each morning, then close by that afternoon; the following afternoon, they open in their male guise. Other cultivars bloom on the opposite schedule: female in the afternoon, male by morning. Ever since humans have cultivated it, they have tried to help the helpless romancer with various intervention strategies — grafting, planting trees with opposite blooming schedules near each other, even manually pollinating blossoms of the same tree.

The world’s most beloved avocado — the Hass — is the consequence of human interference consecrated by happenstance in the hands of a California mailman in the 1920s. The year he turned thirty, Rudolph Hass was leafing through a magazine when an illustration stopped him up short: a tree growing dollar bills instead of fruit. He was making 25 cents an hour delivering mail while raising a growing family. The tree, he learned, was an avocado and its fruit were promised to be the next great horticultural boon.

Rudolph took all the money he had, borrowed some from his sister Ida, and bought a small grove of the leading commercial avocado variety — the Fuerte — with a few other cultivars sprinkled in. Needing the greatest possible gain from his grove, he wanted only Fuertes. Rudolph bought three of the lustrous dark orbs and planted them in his grove. They sprouted. When they grew strong enough, he grafted onto one of them a cutting from one of the mature Fuerte trees. The graft didn’t take. He tried again on another of the seedlings. This too failed. Resigned, Rudolph abandoned the experiment and let his surviving seedling grow as it pleased. In a neglected corner of the grove, it quietly went on doing what trees, those masters of improvisation, do.

When Rudolph cut one open for his five young children, they declared those were the most delicious avocados they had ever tasted. Soon, the world would agree. The Hass family had patented the avocado within a decade. In the near-century since Rudolph’s hopeful and hapless experiment, the Hass avocado has begun bringing in more than a billion dollars a year for growers, accounting for four fifths of the American avocado industry. But Rudolph Hass continued working as a mailman until he was felled by a heart attack months after his sixtieth birthday,

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