Chance, Choice, and the Avocado: The Strange Evolutionary and Creative History of Earth’s Most Nutritious Fruit

The story of a lost romancer who survived the Ice Age and became a global sensation.

The last week of April 1685 saw William Dampier, an English naturalist and explorer, arrive on a tiny island off the Bay of Panama, surrounded by a fierce naval conflict. Dampier — the first person to circumnavigate the globe thrice, inspiring others as different as Cook and Darwin — made careful note of local tree species everywhere he traveled, but none fascinated him more than what he encountered for the first time on this tiny island.

Dampier described the black bark and smooth oval leaves of the tall “Avogato Pear-tree,” then paused at its unusual fruit — “as big as a large Lemon,” green until ripe and then “a little yellowish,” with green flesh “as soft as Butter” and no distinct flavor of its own, enveloping “a stone as big as a Horse-Plumb.” He described how the fruit are 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”; there was also uncommonly delectable sweet variation: “mixt with Sugar and Lime-juice, and beaten together in a Plate.” And then he added:

According to some reports, this fruit is thought to cause Lust and is therefore highly valued by the Spaniards.

Avocado by Étienne Denisse from the stunningly illustrated 19th-century French encyclopedia Flore d’Amérique. Available as a print or a cuttingboard, with stationery cards to benefit the New York Botanical Garden.

Its amorous tendencies, discovered in centuries by science that was then magic or herety, are far more interesting than its cultural history.

The most nutritious known fruit, the avocado — a mostly evergreen member of the laurel family — is a ghost of evolution that should have grown extinct when the animals that fed on it and disseminated its enormous seeds did. It survived, but it was not extinct. It was abundant in North America and Europe during the Ice Age. However, it managed to survive in Mexico where it spread. But even more impressively, it managed to survive its own self-defeating sexual relations — the botanical equivalent of the human wire-crossing Eric Berne described in his revelatory 1964 classic Games People Play.

Bald of petals though the tree’s small greenish blossoms may be, they are an example of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for bisexual blooming plants, which can typically self-pollinate. However, the avocado is not self-sufficient in reproductive capacity due to its amazing internal clock. It comes with two mirror-image versions.

In some cultivars — like the Hass, Pinkerton, and Reed avocados — the blossoms open up into reproductive receptivity in their female guise each morning, then close by that afternoon; the following afternoon, they open in their male guise. Other cultivars — the Fuerte, Zutano, and Bacon avocado among them — bloom on the opposite schedule: female in the afternoon, male by morning.

ThisbeJohn William Waterhouse (1909). Available as a printed copy.

This presents a Pyramus and Thisbe problem across the wall of time — while both partners inhabit the space of a single tree, they can’t reach each other across the day-parts and need to be pollinated by trees on the opposite schedule. The fact that certain varieties, such as the Hass variety, do not fertilize every year, further hampers their ability to reproduce.

Ever since humans have cultivated Earth’s most nutritious fruit, 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.

Northern California has the Hass avocado (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

His 30th birthday. Rudolph Hass (June 5, 1892–October 24, 1952) was leafing through a magazine when an illustration stopped him up short: a tree growing dollar bills instead of fruit. The man was earning 25 cents an hour to deliver mail and raise a family. He learned that the tree was an avocado, and its fruits were to become the next big horticultural boom.

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 but couldn’t afford to buy any new trees. To make them more fertile, he cut down some old trees and transplanted the rest. Expert advice was given by a professional grafter who advised that the best way to do grafting is with his own seedlings. He did not have any. He did have one, but a mailman on the route happened to be a very green-thumbed man who was trying out avocado growing from seeds he had collected from restaurants.

Rudolph purchased three of the dark, lustrous orbs from Rudolph and placed them in his garden. They sprang. After they had grown strong enough, he transplanted a piece of Fuerte wood from an older tree to one of his plants. The graft didn’t take. Another one of his seedlings failed. He also gave up.

Rudolph quit the experiment, and let his remaining seedling flourish. In a neglected corner of the grove, it quietly went on doing what trees, those masters of improvisation, do — press on with their blind optimism. When it reached maturity, it began bearing fruit that looked nothing like any other avocado — dark and luscious, the Braille of its skin glimmering with violet.

Rudolph gave one to his five children as a gift. They declared it the best avocado they had ever eaten.

Soon the whole world would be on board.

Given America’s Great Depression and the fact that the Hass Family had patent the avocado in ten years,

Rudolph and Elizabeth Hass stand in front of the mother-tree

After describing his “new and improved variety of avocado which has certain characteristics that are highly desirable” and listing all the ways in which “the present invention” differed from existing avocados — higher oil content, superior flavor, doesn’t drop from the tree or rot inside before ripening, resists cold blasts, and, oh, it is almost purple — Rudolph ended his patent application with a summation of his creation that hums with a kind of humble pride:

I claim as my invention: The variety of avocado tree… characterized by its summer ripening, medium-sized fruits, of purple color having a leathery skin… and borne on long stemps [sic]A small, tight-shaped seed, with creamy flesh with excellent color, nutty taste, and no fiber. It has a butter-like texture and smooth, almost creamy consistency.

Rudolph Hass’s avocado patent, 1935.

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 in his early sixties, months before Rachel Carson indicted her country with the reminder that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”

Today, every single Hass avocado in every neighborhood market that ever was and ever will be can be traced to a single mother tree grown by a destitute California mailman in 1926 — tender evidence that every tree is in some sense immortal, and a living testament to how chance and choice converge to shape our lives.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.

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