STORY AND PHOTOS BY JILLIAN STEINBERGER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARY BROWN
The East Bay produces a cornucopia of tree fruits that we love to eat, such as apples, figs, and plums. But what about our beloved avocado (Persea americana)?
Hearing reports of avocado trees growing quietly among us, I followed clues in search of these elusive trees and found them living almost unnoticed all over the East Bay, from Fremont to Antioch. Some are majestic, towering gorgeously above Victorian mansions and dropping their fat fruit from great heights. Many were planted in the 1960s and ‘70s, but there are rumors of trees over 90 years old.
Why have more trees not been planted? It could be that many homeowners are concerned that an avocado tree would overwhelm a small urban or suburban lot, since left to their own devices most avocado cultivars grow to well over 30 feet in height. Add to that the common caveats: you need two trees for pollination, taking up even more space, and they create deep shade so you can’t garden under them. Plus, they make a mess if you don’t harvest the fruit.
When an avocado craze swept Southern California back in the 1920s, many trees were planted on small lots. But the mania never made it to Northern California, perhaps because there’s a perception that we have too much frost for this subtropical tree, native to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. In truth, many avocado cultivars are hardy and can take cold down to 25 degrees (once they make it past juvenile stage). The trees can be topped and kept to six feet without harm, says Katherine Pyle, founder of the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) Golden Gate Chapter. Some varieties self-pollinate, making two trees unnecessary. And you can garden around them.
Gary Gragg sells several cold-hardy varieties suitable for the East Bay at his nursery, Golden Gate Palms, in Richmond. He says he got into growing avocados because he’s addicted to them. “I can eat three or four avocados a day,” he says. “That could be a nearly $3,000-a-year habit.” What to do? “Figure out how to grow the darned things myself.” And he did, 12 years ago planting a grove on his Lafayette property. He grows 20 varieties and says, “I’m aggressively planting and we have about 90 trees.” His children have a business growing and delivering fruit in the area.
East Bay gardeners wanting unique avocado cultivars often wander to another of the very few avocado nurseries in Northern California, Epicenter Avocados, which is located south of Santa Cruz at La Selva Beach. There, Ellen Baker and Freddy Menge propagate and sell in a cold pocket with frequent freezes down to 25 degrees. Baker is a past president of the CRFG Monterey Chapter, and husband Menge organizes the chapter’s scion exchanges. (Scions are cut, living twigs used for grafting.) They grow 32 cultivars that are mother trees for budwood (scions that include buds). Of these, they propagate and sell 12 unusual and connoisseur varieties. CRFG’s Golden Gate Chapter chairperson, John Valenzuela, calls these folks “the bright lights of the nouveau avocado growers in Northern California.”
THE FERAL AVOCADO
What child—or adult for that matter—has not sprouted the pit of a store-bought avocado? Whether those seeds produce viable trees draws mixed opinions.
Avocado genetics are extremely varied. “It’s like having children,” says Gragg. “Every seed sprouts a new variety. They might look alike but they’re not the same. Homegrown seedlings will almost always produce inferior fruit when compared to named cultivars. They also take seven to 10 years to fruit whereas named cultivars have the ability to fruit much earlier.” (Named cultivars are always grafted trees, with budwood from a desirable tree grafted to rootstock.)
Menge, however, takes an experimental view. “We are always on the lookout for random trees that are small in stature but make big fruit. We’ve run across several exceptional ‘feral’ seedlings, like the ones we’ve named Bonnie Doon, Ibis, and Bird Avenue. We grow them and evaluate them. We found a tree that grew on the north side of Santa Rosa on the north side of a Mexican restaurant, and Santa Rosa gets some cold, cold weather. It shouldn’t have been doing well, but it was. If somebody knows of an exceptional neighborhood tree that is weird, we’d like to know about it.”
Bruce Beernink, who grew up in the Berkeley Hills, is design facilitator at La Semenza Farm in Santa Cruz, where he helps tend the avocado orchard next door. He knows each tree like the back of his hand. Planted about 50 years ago by an Italian family, the Sagrinis, the orchard is a rarity, because all of its trees were intentionally planted from seeds and there are about 24 unnamed varieties. After a peaceful walk through the grove, Beernink sent us home with 30 pounds of mature avocados from five different trees. There were big ones and small ones, black and green and red ones, some with pebbly skin and others smooth. We ate a bunch and shared a bunch, and many of our mystery avocados were good.
Tracy Gilbert, a nursery assistant at LEAF (Local Ecology and Agriculture Fremont), still harvests from the tree her mother planted from a grocery store avocado seed after reading an article in a women’s magazine. It died in a freeze and her father cut it down to the ground, but then it sprouted back and grew to 30 feet high. She says, “The fruit our tree produces is delicious. Our fruit is large and pear-shaped with smooth thin skin that matures to a green-black color on the tree, and the flesh is green and buttery when ripe.” Anders Vidstrand, who teaches edible landscaping at Merritt College in Oakland, says those fruits are the best Bay Area avocados he’s tasted, and they remind him of the variety Fuerte, which was the dominant commercial avocado before Hass. But he himself strongly advises planting grafted trees.
If you only have space for one or two trees, it’s wise to buy a known variety that meets your taste profile and suits your site’s climatic conditions, or graft budwood yourself from a tree you like.
THE CONNOISSEUR’S AVOCADO
“Hass is the homogenized variety of commerce,” grower Gary Gragg says of the variety that accounts for approximately 95 percent of sales in the U.S., according to the California Avocado Commission. He explains that its thick protective skin takes it through the rough handling of transport. “The growers like the fact that it’s harder to tell when you have an inferior fruit. This is not to say the Hass is a bad avocado. Those of us who love avos mostly have eaten Hass. But there are others to try.”
Indeed! There are more than 900 named cultivars.
For the backyard grower, Epicenter’s Ellen Baker suggests the variety called Jan Boyce. It’s from a seedling that was grown at UC Riverside, where she says some consider it to be the best avocado they ever tasted. “It has a rich flavor, and is perfect for a home grower who wants a beautiful, unusual, delicious avocado with an immediate ripening time. You won’t buy it at the store because it doesn’t ship well. When you cut it open it makes you laugh, because the seed is so small.”
Baker also likes the Reed variety. “When ripe, they are one of the best. They are winter fruit, really rich with a walnut flavor. They’re precocious [bear early], not picky about their pollinizers, and don’t need another tree nearby to make fruit. They’re great for home growers because they are a small columnar tree, and can be kept narrow and tidy without casting as much shade.”
Gragg recommends Bacon for everyday eating. He says, “The richest avocados are like chocolate cake—you can’t eat it every day. A low-oil-content variety like Bacon can be eaten in greater quantities because of its lighter creamy taste. Bacon also has less calories per ounce.”
There’s simply nothing bad to be said about the avocado tree and its fruits. They are life sustaining and unique among plants, and also fun, sexy, nutritious, beautiful, diverse, and provide habitat for bees, bats, and birds.
Freddy Menge of Epicenter Avocados says, “Our perspective is that of the homeowner’s: to grow your own food and develop food self-sufficiency. We grow many late-season apples, but apples and other fruits are basically sugar and water. You can’t really live all year on apples. But avocados are healthy fats, and it seems like an amazing thing to us to grow fat on a tree. You can live on avocados.”
The trees also create the space for simple pleasures and old-fashioned pastimes. With their strong limbs, open branching habit, and bright-green cathedral-like canopies, mature avocado trees invite climbing, and they’re perfect for a tree house. In their deep but dappled shade, the trees provide relief from summer heat. San Leandro residents Danna Pierce and Carla Rogers say that on a hot summer day, it’s up to 10 degrees cooler under the avocado tree in their front yard. An avocado grove is a quiet and woodsy place for a contemplative walk.
With their shapely silhouettes and evergreen leaves that appear to shimmer, avocado trees are great beauties. Joan Morris, who lives in Antioch, is the pets and wildlife columnist for the Bay Area News Group papers. She recounts, “My mom started seeds from three Hass avocados that I had bought at the grocery story. When they rooted, I planted them, never expecting them to survive. That was about seven years ago. One tree is close to 20 feet…. That tree actually bloomed last year, but produced no fruit. I don’t honestly expect to ever get any fruit from them, but they make attractive shade trees.”
Then there is the species’ fascinating sexuality in the multiple ways the trees balance masculine and feminine characteristics. Botanically, avocado blossoms are termed “perfect flowers,” because they are both male and female. The fruits have been ascribed aphrodisiac qualities since ancient times, and were thought to promote male fertility. The word “avocado” comes from the Spanish aguacate, which comes from the Mexican Nahuatl word ahuacacuauhitl, which means “testicle tree.” Lore has it that maidens were not allowed near the trees during harvest time. (Nauhuatl was the language of the Aztecs and some dialects are still spoken.) Yet, avocados are also very feminine.
“The avocado is the most feminine, most luscious of all the foods we eat,” says chef and raw-food advocate Heather Haxo Phillips. “Is there anything more creamy, more inviting then the avocado? It’s up there with chocolate and mangos,” she adds.
“I agree with chef Heather,” says chef Lisa Books-Williams, who lives in Pleasanton and has catered multi-course dinners at World Vegetarian Day festivals. “In fact, avocados are the star of the ‘Foods for Romance’ class I teach around Valentine’s Day.” When Lisa competes in the upcoming Vegan Iron Chef Competition in San Francisco, the other contestants better hope avocados are not an ingredient!
Of course, avocados are famous for their nutritional benefits. Chef Lisa’s concept of “joyful eating” has helped her regain her health and release more than 100 pounds. She eats plenty of avocados and notes that they are alkalizing and full of vitamin E and fiber. They are also high in B vitamins, potassium, and vitamin K. Chef Heather notes that avocados offer six to ten grams of protein per avocado. They are high in calories, but as she explains, “they have the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that doctors want us to eat. I deliberately keep the amount of other fats in my life low so that I can enjoy an avocado wherever and however I want.”
Chef Lacey Sher, proprietor of Encuentro Café and Wine Bar in Oakland’s Jack London Square says, “Aside from their amazing nutrient properties, avocados add a roundness to a diet. Much like nuts, they create a feeling of balance and fullness in a meal. Nurturing foods satisfy many senses.” ♣
KEEP READING! This article continues with three more fascinating stories:
RECIPES FROM PEOPLE IN THIS STORY
“Avocado Growing in the East Bay,” by John Valenzuela, Chairperson of the California Rare Fruit Growers’s Golden Gate Chapter.
“Answers to Avocado Questions,” from the University of California Riverside Agricultural and National Resources
Julie Frink, curator of the Avocado Variety Collection at the South Coast Research Center at University of California, Irvine, offers this comprehensive video.
And here’s an especially nice collection of avocado breakfast recipes.