THE avocado tree can't help itself. Plant it in Southern California and it grows high and wide, its limbs like pumped-up biceps looking for room to flex. Its fruit hangs for months and months, like Christmas decorations you wish someone would take down.
Its coloring put the ranch in ranch houses, but who decorates in avocado green anymore? By the time the '70s had passed, so had the tree's popularity as a backyard exotic. The old-timers just got bigger, a sometimes intimidating inheritance when you bought a house in Pasadena or Brentwood or La Habra, a reminder of vanished orchards.
But that Atlas of a tree gushed fruit that, once picked, was green gold, as much as $3 apiece in the market. The limbs were an unparalleled place to put a treehouse, so easy to climb and sturdy. The avocado tree was — and still is — Southern California's Southern magnolia, its leaves glossy coasters, forever shedding like tears of joy. Scuffle through them and there is that smell of wild spices.
My friend Susan had an avocado tree in the yard of her first house in Santa Monica. Every morning she looked forward to opening the French doors and seeing that tree, its magnificent armature, its solidity, its promise. A native New Yorker, she had no childhood affinity for the tree's exotic fruit, but its almost mythic proportions were a revelation. "It grounded me," she says.
Avocados in California branch back to Guatemala and Mexico. (The West Indies is another source, but its varieties favor moister Florida.) Mexico's small black avocados — the Dickinson is an example — were the first to find favor but were quickly usurped by the mighty Fuerte and Lyon and Anaheim, all butterfly green and much prettier in the fruit bowl.
Then in 1926, the Microsoft of avocados was born. A hobbyist in La Habra Heights produced a new variety, naming it after himself. The Hass (rhymes with "pass") was a prolific producer that self-pollinated, its knobby black skin easy to peel, its flesh rich in the oil that gives an avocado its flavor punch. It was a runaway hit with growers and eaters.
But even as commercial farming became beholden to the Hass, the whole Hass and nothing but the Hass, avocado scientists and hobbyists were coming up with new varieties and preserving old ones so that, on the sprawling acres of the University of California's South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine, you can now see more than 150 species.
The long hallways of trees at the station are as familiar to volunteer Julie Frink as her own home, some occupants more dear than others. "Every tree has its fault, and every tree has something special about it," she says. But why so many? Why not stop at Hass? Because no one knows, she says, with an Old Testament intonation, what plague is around the corner; a super thrips or mighty mite or some other ungodly pest that will take out one of the state's most important crops.
"We're banking for the unknown," she says.
Besides, there are trees here that would be perfect urban dwellers, starting with the Holiday, which grows to about 12 feet — practically a dwarf in avocado-dom. Its waterfall canopy makes a perfect hide-out for child or adult. No wonder Frink has nicknamed it the Clubhouse. And can you believe the size of the fruit on this little guy? Green globes bigger than a fist.
For decades scientists had hoped to develop a true dwarf avocado that would give the teeny-tiny citruses — the new garden gnomes — some competition. Never happened. There is a tree called the dwarf Littlecado, but it's something of a misnomer: It sprouts even higher than the Holiday, about 15 feet. At least it's a wasp-waisted 10 feet wide. Its flavor isn't as tasty as the equally svelte Reed, which Frink recommends as an alternative to Italian cypress for creating a hedge.
After touting the Reed, Frink zigzags over to a Nimlioh, whose branches arch out like Chinese fireworks and whose fruit is as large and round as a small cantaloupe. Eric Focht, a research associate from UC Riverside, the Harvard of avocado science, has given this specimen a buzz cut.
"We don't always follow the pruning guidelines," he says, but the fruit-heavy tree doesn't seem at all offended.
Although retail nurseries carry the Reed, Littlecado and Holiday, they won't have the Nimlioh. Same goes for the Helen, a busty green fruit that peels as easily as a banana, and the Queen, with fruit like squash that can weigh in at 2 1/2 pounds. Nor the Jan Boyce, the "connoisseur's avocado," says Frink, who's been showing off these trees not to frustrate but to preview what will be at the Fullerton Arboretum's Green Scene sale in April, a rare chance to get the rarer trees.
Frink struggles to put into words how much she cares for the Jan Boyce. "There's nothing like it," she says. Focht cuts one open, revealing the tiny seed, the size of a large marble.
The Jan Boyce, Frink says, is happiest if left huge. The same goes for the beloved Fuerte, and at the two-story, 1911 Carpinteria farmhouse that Andy and Denise Powell bought 16 years ago, you'll find one happy tree. Their kids climbed all over the giant, and Andy installed a treehouse, respectfully securing it with ropes instead of nails. The tree has given them tons of fruit, though at times they have wondered if the land would look better without the tree. "It would sure change the look," Andy says.
Which brings us back to the quandary with avocados. They can be the SUVs of landscaping, heavyweights in height and girth. They can be altered to meet the times, but go too far and they won't do the job they were born for.
San Luis Obispo grower Dave Righetti has a solution that harks back to how early avocado fanciers shared the wealth. At the end of a packed street at Carpinteria's annual avocado festival in October, he's at a table laden with avocados you'll never see at Ralphs: shapely green geese with curved necks, babies as large as softballs, little darklings that are the antiques of avocados.
Righetti isn't fazed that the commercial industry considers these varieties — the Ryan, the giant Nabal (which can weigh 2 pounds), the ancient Dickinson — unmarketable. He's catering to the curious, just as he indulges his own curiosity.
From 1900 to the 1950s, backyard growers throughout the Los Angeles Basin were enthusiastically planting any avocado seeds they could get their hands on, he says. He's got the same spirit, sometimes growing as many as 20 types to sell at the farmers markets in San Luis Obispo and to restaurants that prize the fruit.
"It's interesting the reaction you get," he says of the shoppers. "Most people have never seen avocados so big. They ask whether they were grown over by Diablo Canyon near the nuclear power plant."
He speculates how backyard growers could ensure fruit year-round by planting trees that bloom at different times: Hass for spring/summer harvest, Reed for fall, Fuerte or Pinkerton for winter. But you'd need half an acre or so to do that. Righetti has a dandy idea: Three or four families could get together and each plant a different tree. Then they could share the bounty. "It would bring America back together," he says with a grin.
Eric Nagelmann has another thought. He's one of Santa Barbara's most sought-after landscape designers and he adores the avocado tree, a relationship going back to when he tended an orchard in his 20s.
"There's nothing like walking through a grove of old avocado trees," he says. "It's otherworldly."
He had been training an avocado in his own yard along a fence and became enamored of the possibilities of an espaliered avocado in a garden setting. But that much pruning would mean little or no fruit.
"How much avocado fruit can you eat?" is his rejoinder.
Besides, the leaves are so marvelous, its tropical greenery contrasting with the chocolate brown castoffs below, he says. How about the avocado's reputation as a notorious shedder? There's nothing wrong with leaving those aromatic leaves on the ground, he says, especially when "kids love to roll around on them."
Query Southern Californians about avocados and many will conjure up memories of that scent, or of dangling from the top of a two-story tree. Or the most defining moment of all: the urgency that comes with a cold snap. Frost means avocado death and in years past, growers would quickly light the smudge pots, their flames like fiery tongues in a Bosch painting, the air hazy the day after. Those fires are nurseryman Rob Brokaw's first memory, standing up in his crib in Ventura County. Now, like everyone else, he uses wind machines in his groves, but when the temperature falls like a rock, he'll still light a smudge pot or two.
There a box of Ventura County's finest, in this case Bacons, at the Santa Barbara farmers market. Not many are selling, which the salesman attributes to the brainwashing toward Hass. No matter, he says; the Bacons will fly out of the box at the Hollywood Farmers' Market where he's found the buyers more adventurous. The Hass, he says dismissively, is overrated.
But what's so bad about Hass? George Goodall was the state farm advisor to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties starting in the '50s, and he's among the legions of fans of the Hass.
The Hass bears a lot of fruit every year (unlike the Nabal, which blooms every other year) and it tastes great, he says. Goodall tends to an orchard in the backyard of his Santa Barbara home, a pastime enhanced by the fact that the Hass is "easily grown, easily cared for," the retiree says.
Plant an avocado tree and acquire an advantage in the quality of fruit you eat. Although the avocado won't finish ripening until after it's picked, fruit coming into the markets from Chile is harvested too early — to allow time for shipping — and will have a lower oil content as a result. (Imported Mexican avocados, once banned throughout the U.S., are now allowed into all mainland states but California and Florida, which will lift their ban in 2007.)
Supermarket shoppers tend to buy impulsively, and the industry has responded by supplying more and more avocados that have been artificially ripened (sometimes by spraying with ethylene gas, which is harmless). But once ripe, every bump and squeeze can bring on a nasty bruise.
Find out the hang time for your fruit so you'll know when to harvest. The Holiday needs more than a year on the tree and can sometimes go two years. One way to check if you're getting close: Cut one open. You want to see a dark seed. A light seed cover means the fruit is still too young. Or as Goodall advises, just wait for the outside skin to get dark and dull, and know it's time to pick.
A properly harvested fruit may take a week or two to ripen, but with avocados, patience is virtuous — especially when shopping for certain trees. La Sumida Nursery in Santa Barbara has the Fuerte, Hass, Holiday and dwarf Littlecado in stock, and staff are willing to take special orders for other varieties.
Green Thumb Nursery in Ventura has carried up to 15 varieties including the harder-to-find Pinkerton, Reed and Zutano. But what the retailers can get is still limited by what wholesalers will stock. La Verne Nursery in San Dimas, a major wholesale supplier to nurseries and chains such as Home Depot, has about 13 varieties. They once had more but have given up on such trees as the Anaheim and Nabal. There's just not the demand.
Then there is that rare case where the trees are already an immutable part of the backyard landscape. At the Montecito Avocado Ranch, homes worth millions are surrounded by 30-year-old avocado trees. It's part of the agreement for living in this gated community, says Vince Mezzio, who planted the original orchard but gave up on commercial farming.
In selling off the lots, some as large as 10 acres, the homebuilders were allowed to cut down some trees, but the clearing was kept to a minimum, Mezzio says. "Most people don't want to take them out anyway," he says. "They make a beautiful backdrop. It's why they bought here in the first place."
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How to plant your own tree
Choose to plant your own avocado tree or even a tiny orchard, and you draw on years of passion for a crop that has been a state leader in dollar yield per acre, says Gene Carbone, former chief financial officer for Calavo, the avocado growers cooperative.
The Holiday, Reed and Littlecado are among the best candidates for small sites. Expect others to grow about 20 feet wide. Plant each on a mound for good drainage, mulch the soil to encourage the feeder roots to spread, and then fertilize maybe twice a year.
For the backyard grower, the one pest that's really a pest, the Persea mite, can be treated by the introduction of a wasp that will feed on it, and not you. Root rot is a concern, but more for the commercial grower than the backyard owner. A clonal rootstock resistant to it is carried by Brokaw Nursery of Saticoy and Mike Cavaletto of C&M Nursery in Nipomo. But the production process is expensive, and so are those trees. You won't find them at your local nursery or Home Depot, but you are likely to find other stock Cavaletto has grown, with his trees scheduled to be in Wal-Mart stores starting next year.
How best to prune the avocado is endlessly discussed among growers. Cut back an avocado severely and it will be two to three years before it bears again. Don't prune it and it could reach 50 feet high.
Goodall suggests trimming off a branch here and there, particularly on the top and south sides, where the tree will have its heaviest growth. This patchwork quilt approach will leave fruit-bearing branches while allowing some shaping of the tree. It will also keep the tree from becoming too dense, blocking the sunshine that encourages blooming.
For information, contact the California Rare Fruit Growers or the California Avocado Commission. One way to buy avocado varieties not available through nurseries: Stop by the California Rare Fruit Growers booth at the Fullerton Arboretum's Green Scene sale, scheduled for the last weekend of April.
-- Ann Herold
Ann Herold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.