Plant Profile: Avocado

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What is an avocado?

Persea americana is an evergreen tree, native to Mexico, Central America and South America. It belongs to Lauraceae, the plant family that also includes cinnamon trees. Avocado trees produce green-skinned, round or pear-shaped fruit containing a single large pit (seed). Botanically speaking, avocado is actually a berry. Its yellow flesh is nutrient-rich and high in monounsaturated fat—characteristics that lend to its label as a “super food.”

The common name avocado is an English adaptation of the Spanish word, aguacate, which is an adaptation of an Aztec word also used to describe testicles—an apparent reference to the shape of the fruit. It is also sometimes referred to as “alligator pear” because of its bumpy green peel and pear-like shape.

Avocado at market
A basket of avocados at a produce market in Bocono, Venezuela. Photo by Garden Research Associate Dr. Michael Nee.

Commercial production

The typical avocado you find in the grocery store likely comes from one of two places—Mexico or California. Mexico exports nearly 2 billion avocados to the United States each year. California produces about 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop.

There are several varieties of avocado, but Hass is by far the most popular. The cultivar was created by Rudolph Hass and patented in 1935. Today, Hass accounts for 80 percent of the world’s avocado crop.

Commercial growers typically graft avocado onto rootstock to keep the quality and quantity of fruit consistent. The fruit is harvested when full-grown, but firm, making them easier to transport to grocery stores across the country. An avocado is ripe when the skin turns dark and it gives slightly when squeezed gently.

Avocado in Store
Avocados for sale in a St. Louis grocery store.

Eat it or wear it

One of the most common culinary uses of avocados is as the main ingredient in guacamole. The popular dip often includes parts of other plants such as tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime. There are endless variations of this recipe, including this mention of a guacamole-like creation from 1851 that calls for the addition of wine and sugar.

“…and this is so rich and mild that most people make use of some spice or pungent substance to give it poignancy; and wine, sugar, lime-juice, but mostly pepper and salt, are used.”

from Curtis’s botanical magazine (1851)

Avocados aren’t just for eating either. It’s high oil content and assortment of nutrients also make it a popular ingredient in Do-It-Yourself beauty remedies.

Grow your Own

Avocados are fairly easy to grow from seed, making them perfect for a home experiment. Start by peeling away the outer coating on the seed. Then, use toothpicks to suspend the seed about half-submerged in a jar of water. In a few weeks you’ll see roots emerge in the water followed by a green sprout from the top.

You can now transfer the plant into a pot with soil. Keep it well-watered but not soaked, and in a sunny spot. Your avocado tree can be put outside in summer, but will need to be brought in from the cold when temperatures dip below 50 degrees.

More grow-your-own tips from the Kemper Center for Home Gardening

Avocado_Jar
An avocado seed sprouts in a jar of water.

Avocados in our Collection

Because of its intolerance for cold, the only place the Garden can grow avocados is in the Climatron®. Our avocado tree is a semi-dwarf cultivar called Whitsell. It grows near our other tropical fruit trees like cacao and jackfruit.

Avocado 'Whitsell'
Avocado ‘Whitsell’ in fruit in the Climatron. Photo by Cassidy Moody

Several specimens of avocado are also contained in the Garden’s herbarium. Some of these vouchers include dried cross-sections of the fruit and its seed, while others show the plants flowers. These vouchers typically contain valuable data about geographic location, environmental conditions, and the year it was collected—information useful to Garden researchers and others around the world. For instance, Persea americana is included in a recently completed checklist of the plant diversity of the Americas.

Avocado Herbarium
A voucher for Persea americana (avocado) from the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.

 

Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

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