Orchard Trees of Rancho Los Cerritos: Avocados

By: Marie Barnidge-McIntyre

Marie Barnidge-McIntyre is the staff horticulturist for Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach, California, and did the majority of the…

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An avocado (Persea americana) at Rancho Los Cerritos. Author’s photographs

An avocado (Persea americana) at Rancho Los Cerritos. Author’s photographs

A recent archeological dig in Peru revealed avocado seeds buried with a mummy that dated back to the eighth century BC. The avocado’s recorded history jumps ahead to the various Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya, circa 250 AD, and the Aztecs, more than a thousand years later. A Mayan legend has a princess eating the “first” fruit. Another Mayan contribution is of a husband who discovered the end of the world by following the trail of young avocado trees that sprouted from the pits discarded by his wife and her lover. The Aztecs named the fruit ahuacatl, meaning testicle. This anatomical reference furthered the belief that the fruit possessed aphrodisiac properties. As a result, Aztec maidens were said to be secured indoors during the avocado harvest. Long before Europeans arrived, the native peoples had distributed the fruit throughout Mesoamerica so effectively that regional types were identified. The genus for avocado is Persea and the three main types are Mexican (P. americana var. drymifolia), Guatemalan (P. nubigena var. guatemalensis), and West Indian (P. americana var. americana).

When Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez reached Mexico City, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II honored him by serving this prized fruit. A few years later, the fruit was described by historian Ovido in a 1526 report to Spain’s King Charles V, calling it “very good eating.” The Spanish discovered that if an avocado pit is scored, a milky fluid oozes out. High in tannins, this fluid turns a reddish brown when exposed to air. They used this “juice” as an ink to document the treasures discovered in the new world. The conquerors, however, were convinced of the avocado’s aphrodisiac nature, and forbade the fruit to confessing Catholics; this may explain why the avocado is not commonly found on lists of fruit grown early on at California’s missions.

The first recorded encounter by an Englishman occurred about 150 years later, when a Mr W Hughs, physician to the Crown, pronounced the avocado to be, “one of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the Jamaican Islands. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body.” Always in need of fresh fruit during their long journeys, sailors spread mashed avocado on their hard tack, nicknaming it “midshipman’s butter.” Additional common names applied to the exotic fruit include alligator pear, butter pear, and aguacate.

Foliage and flowers of avocado (Persea americana)

Foliage and flowers of avocado (Persea americana)

Avocados in North America

In 1751, a prominent Virginian, Lawrence Washington, traveled south to the Caribbean island of Barbados, in hopes that the climate would help cure him of tuberculosis. Accompanying him was his young half-brother George, who was exposed to both small pox and avocados on the journey. George wrote that, “Agovago [sic] pears were abundant and popular.” George, though scarred, recovered from the pox, and the brothers returned home to America where far bigger things awaited George in his military and political career.

Avocados became established in North America when Dr Henry Perrine imported them from Mexico to Florida in 1833. Eight years later, on the West Coast, Henry Dalton, planted avocados at his Rancho Azusa. Soon after, Dr Thomas J White added both the exotic aguacate and mangos to his own Los Angeles orchard.

Judge Ord further stimulated interest in the odd fruit when he brought three trees back from Mexico to Santa Barbara in 1871. He shared avocado seedlings with a local nurseryman, Kinton Stevens, whose nursery was later transformed into the garden known as Lotusland. Joseph Sexton, also of Santa Barbara, worked to select new cultivars in California and Hawaii. In 1879, an avocado was planted on the campus of UC Berkeley and, today, stands as the state’s oldest living avocado tree on record.

In 1894, Charles Ranhofer, chef of Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, published The Epicurean, wherein he mentions alligator pears. Within a year, regular shipments of the delicacy were delivered to America’s premier restaurants.

By 1907, the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles was serving avocados as well. Henry Huntington so enjoyed the fruit during lunch there that he asked the chef for all the seeds he had. Passing them to his gardener, William Hertrich, who identified them as alligator pears, Huntington questioned the possibility of growing the trees on his San Marino Ranch, now known as The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Hertrich was confident of success, and the two men proceeded to collect as many seeds from acquaintances as they could. In three months time, they had accumulated three hundred seeds, the nucleus of the first major avocado orchard in Southern California. Hertrich was a charter member of the California Avocado Association and helped launch California’s avocado industry.

Competition for improved varieties commenced. Nurseryman Frederick O Popenoe, owner of West India Gardens in Altadena, sent employee Carl Schmidt to Mexico in search of quality avocados. Schmidt was to visit Mexican markets, find the best fruit, determine where they came from, identify the trees, and collect budwood for grafting. He shipped the budwood by Wells Fargo to Altadena, where each cutting was numbered and grafted. One cutting, named ‘Fuerte’ (Spanish for “strong”), proved frost resistant and became the backbone of California’s avocado industry.

Ralph Cornell and Avocados

Young Ralph Cornell ran short of funds while enrolled at Pomona College and took a year off to work. One job was for classmate Wilson Popenoe’s father, as foreman and propagator. Years later, Wilson wrote,

How well I remember those days when Ralph and I stood side-by-side at the potting bench of the West India Gardens in Altadena, convinced that the avocado seeds we were planting were destined to form the basis of a new California industry, which would knock the orange right off the map.

Cornell potted up 40,000 avocado plants, but he continued his dream of a career in landscape design and left Popenoe’s firm to return to Pomona, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1914.

His next goal was Harvard, but lack of money continued to be an obstacle. His experience at West India Gardens inspired him to try it on his own. With some imported avocado seeds, he began grafting them and built up a good supply of young trees. For once, fortune seemed to smile on him. A quarantine act had been instituted, prohibiting the further importation of seeds from Mexico. With his seeds already in the country, Cornell was in position to profit when orders for avocados came in. The quarantine caused local prices to go up, due to the reduced inventory. In 1914, Cornell was able to deliver 1,400 avocado seedlings and grafted trees. His endeavor netted him $1,100, which, coupled with a scholarship, enabled him to study landscape architecture at Harvard. Upon returning to California, he became the first landscape architect in Los Angeles.

When hired to design the Bixby estate garden at Long Beach’s Rancho Los Cerritos in 1931, Cornell included three different avocados in the primary orchard and four more in a secondary orchard, suggesting that the Bixby family must have been dedicated fans of the fruit.

‘Lyon’ Avocado

Of the three trees in the Rancho’s primary orchard, ‘Lyon’ is the oldest cultivar. This is a Guatemalan selection from a seed planted by a Mr Lyon of Hollywood in 1908. Pleased when the tree produced large, pear-shaped fruit at a young age, Lyon had the tree propagated in 1911. It produced good fruit, from April to August, and became an industry standard. A drawback of heavy fruit production was a progressively weaker tree. Nevertheless, ‘Lyon’ became a major player in the breeding of future popular varieties, including possibly today’s top seller, the ‘Haas’ avocado.

The skin of ‘Lyon’ is somewhat rough and bright green, with many yellow or red dots. The Rancho’s existing tree, however, produces small fruit with smooth black skin and a flavor that generates little excitement. One can only imagine that the graft declined and the rootstock took over, producing these inferior fruits. As no records were maintained and the tree is healthy, it will live out its natural life in the Rancho’s orchard.

A bowl of luscious, and healthful, avocado fruits

A bowl of luscious, and healthful, avocado fruits

‘Puebla’ Avocado

One of the selections that Schmidt brought back from Mexico was ‘Puebla’, introduced in 1911; it was considered the finest Mexican avocado and touted as an excellent choice for home gardeners. This is the only avocado we needed to replace when we restored the Rancho’s orchard in 2001. Unfortunately, this cultivar had fallen out of favor with the public and was no longer available.

The South Coast Growing Grounds had a specimen labeled ‘Puebla’. Respected nurseryman Hank Brokaw questioned the veracity of that name, after seeing and sampling a fruit from the labeled tree. Unfortunately, there are no others with which to compare it, so we had it propagated and planted it in the orchard, with the hope that, if another tree could be positively identified as ‘Puebla’, we would replace our tree.

‘Kashlan’ Avocado

The second existing tree, ‘Kashlan’, is also of the Guatemalan group, introduced in 1916 by Popenoe. It produced a green, small-seeded fruit with a hard thick skin, was broadly oval, and weighed up to a pound. ‘Kashlan’ never seemed to catch the public’s fancy, and it, too, has disappeared from the industry. It has apparently passed from the Rancho’s orchard as well, as the mature tree in its place produces fruit suspiciously like that of the tree labeled ‘Lyon’, and is assumed to be another root stock survivor.

So, in an ironic twist of circumstances, the avocado part of the orchard’s renovation must await the passing of the existing, and therefore “historic,” trees before the actual historic cultivars can be reintroduced.

Avocado is the only member of the laurel family (Lauraceae) that produces an edible fruit, botanically a berry. To get the best fruit, you should have two or more trees to ensure cross-pollination. Avocados will not soften on the tree, because the leaves produce hormones that suppress the ripening process. This means that a crop can be stored on the tree, thus extending its season. To speed the ripening of fruit on the kitchen counter, place the avocados in a paper bag with a ripe kiwi fruit; kiwis produce the greatest amount of ethylene, the natural plant substance that promotes ripening.

Both the leaves and the pits of avocados have been used medicinally among native peoples in the tree’s natural range. Avocado fruits are high in fiber, potassium, folate, and vitamins B6, C, and E. They are sodium and cholesterol free; in fact, they have a compound that interferes with cholesterol absorption, as well as a generous supply of antioxidants. This may balance the fact that avocados do not possess aphrodisiac properties.