From import to native: California avocados
San Diego is the epicenter of U.S. avocado production, and Hass is king.
Monday, November 22, 2010 - 20:02
Researching last week's post about the new Huntington Ranch reminded me of something my husband once told me, which is that all Hass avocado trees are descended from a tree that lived near Whittier. Curious, I did some digging and found out more about the origins of the Hass avocado, the most widely consumed avocado in the world.
Avocados are a billion-dollar business here in California, a cornerstone of the state's agricultural output. We take the fruit so seriously that we have an Avocado Commission and an Avocado Society. And the avocado's future as a cash crop looks rosy. According to a 2007 California Avocado Society (CAS) report, "In historical terms, the avocado is still a 'new baby' in most of the world produce markets and is just taking its first commercial steps." A news item from May of this year quoted growers enthusiastic about the 2010 California avocado crop. Recent years have been rough on our state's output, with a major freeze in 2007, an intense heat wave in 2008 and water restrictions in 2009. Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission (CAC), estimates that the state's growers will produce about 470 million pounds of avocados this year, more than double last year's historically light yield of 170 million pounds.
Crossing the border
Persea americana (avocado) originated in south-central Mexico, with evidence of the fruit existing there and in Peru as early as 500 and 750 BC. In 1871, Judge R.B. Ord of Santa Barbara successfully introduced avocados to the U.S. with trees from Mexico. By the 1950s, about 25 types of the green-skinned fruit were commercially packed and shipped in California, with the fuerte variety accounting for more than two-thirds of production. California currently produces 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop, and the Hass variety accounts for about 80 percent of avocados eaten worldwide. How has one variety come to dominate the world's avocado palate?
The Hass Mother Tree, 1926-2002
The progenitor of all Hass avocado trees was planted in La Habra Heights by postman Rudolph Hass in the late 1920s, a seedling he purchased from nursery grower R.A. Whitehouse. Whitehouse was an experimental avocado cultivator, and to this day the exact origin of the Hass Mother Tree seed is undetermined.
Hass' children were the first to catch on to the tastiness of the fruit from this special tree, preferring the flavor and texture of the dark-skinned Hass to the popular and widely produced fuerte. In 1935, Mr. Hass patented the plant and made a deal with nursery owner Harold Brokaw to grow and promote the Hass avocado. But it wasn't until the late 1970s that Hass overtook fuerte as the top avocado crop.
Sadly, the Hass Mother Tree, cared for by Harold Brokaw's nephew Hank, fell victim to root rot. Brokaw waged a decade-long battle against the fungus that ended in 2002, when the tree died and was cut down. Wood from the Hass Mother Tree is in safe keeping at a Ventura nursery.
Among varieties, Hass reigns supreme
Hass is known as the "year-round avocado" because it produces in nearly every season. The only months of sparse Hass harvests in California are October and November. During those months, though, Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic and New Zealand are all growing strong, so availability is unaffected.
Oval-shaped, with a small- to medium-sized seed, Hass avocados feature a distinctive pebbly skin that turns from green to a dark purple-black when the fruit ripens. Their creamy texture and full, nutty flavor are what make these aguacates so overwhelmingly popular.
There are, however, seven alternatives to the Hass that are grown here in California. Lamb Hass and Gwen cultivars produce fruit similar to the Hass trees; Reed is a summertime variety and Pinkerton a special winter crop. Zutano is the avocado season opener, kicking things off in September, while the Bacon variety is harvested mid-winter.
With bountiful 2010 crops, we can look forward to plenty of the unusual and nutritious avocado ... buen apetito!
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