September 28, 2020

Alligator Pears

Avocado (Persea americana) has experienced a spectacular rise in popularity over the last couple of decades. With that have come reports of environmental degradation, sprawling monocultures, and pumping so much water that nearby residents must import their water. Quite the opposite is true in my small forest garden. In addition to eating avocados without the associated guilt, I reap the benefit of a fruit/vegetable that hangs around for quite a while in the ready-to-pick state. Unlike bananas or figs, which wait for no one, those tasty and nutritious avocados will wait for weeks on the tree. To top it all off, I get a kick out of telling people that I'm growing alligator pears, a rather provocative alias.

After moving to Florida, I bought a nice looking, smooth-skinned, bright green avocado at the supermarket, representative of Florida-grown varieties. Unlike most of the Florida varieties I had previously tasted, it was quite creamy. I have seen liquid drip out of some Florida avocados, they are so watery. I commented to my sweetheart how much I liked the taste. He decided to reenact a science experiment from elementary school. He stuck three toothpicks in the pit and suspended the pit in the mouth of a water-filled jar. The pit eventually sprouted and then grew quickly.

Avocado trees in Florida can grow as tall as 65 feet, and there's no guarantee of tasty fruit from a seed-grown tree. Despite unknown outcomes, we planted it in a prominent position, where it would provide shade in our sunbaked backyard. And that is how we stumbled into growing a very large avocado tree.

This is not an alien life form! 
The pit actually sprouted inside the avocado, before I ate it.

We got lucky with our seed-grown tree. It produces an abundance of fruit that are just as creamy as their progenitor. What do you do, when you have a tree loaded with avocados? First you make some guacamole. In case you were thinking that guacamole requires a special combination of ingredients, it does not. You can literally take a ripe avocado, mash it up with a fork, and salt to taste for a perfectly adequate spread. I add freshly grated garlic and key lime juice for a knockout guacamole. The key lime juice also stops the guacamole from turning brown as quickly as it would otherwise. You can further embellish with onions, habanero peppers, cilantro, tomato, mango, salsa, and anything else that suits your fancy. 

Mother Nature approved.  Avocado crumbs left on a chair after a critter had their fill.

When making guacamole, the key ingredient is a ripe avocado. If you choose an under ripe avocado for your guacamole, it will be difficult to mash, it will lack flavor, and most importantly, it won't be very creamy. If overripe, it will be unpleasantly mushy and may have started turning black. Avocados do not ripen on the tree, so you'll need to pick one a few days before you want to use it. How do you know when it's ready to pick? I generally wait until the avocados are squirrel-tested and squirrel-approved. The avocados on my tree will fatten up slowly, but at some point a neighborhood squirrel will come by and scratch a small dent in the avocados, as if doing some investigative testing. If I subsequently find avocado "crumbs" or a pit cleaned of all its flesh, then the squirrels have decided that at least one avocado is ready to eat. With this squirrel seal of approval, I can now pick the fruit and expect them to ripen. I generally start by picking a larger fruit, since it is likely farther along in the ripening process. Once it's on your counter, you can check for ripeness by pressing firmly on the avocado with the palm of your hand. It should give just a little without giving in. Color is not a reliable indicator, because different varieties may turn a different color when mature. If you pick an avocado early in the season, it will take longer to ripen. If you pick later, it will take less time. 

There are many ways to remove the skin.
Here is the slice and spoon method.

But the avocado is so much more versatile than just guacamole. 

  • Avocado slices or chunks make a fine addition to most any salad, even fruit salad. 
  • You can serve it sliced with a drizzle of key lime as a side dish. 
  • Avocados are awesome in smoothies. If you are staying away from dairy, replace yogurt with avocado. If you peeled, de-seeded, and froze some avocado from last year's excess harvest, put them to use in a smoothie. 
  • You can make a chilled avocado soup with much the same ingredients as guacamole; just add some additional water and blend until smooth. For a creamier soup, add some yogurt. 
  • A nice thick slice of avocado goes well in a sandwich, much the same way you'd add a slice of cheese. Or, how about an avocado grilled cheese? 
  • I have experimented with cooking avocados. I thought they might add a bit of creaminess to a soup. That was an outright failure. When cooked this way, avocados turn bitter. You can add them in at the last minute and/or heat them up a bit, but don't actually cook them. 

Due to the popularity of avocados, everybody's an avocado critic. I was surprised to learn that many people actually like cooked avocados. As with most adventures in cooking, if you are the chef, your personal preferences prevail.

Avocado and green papaya salad in a yogurt sauce

Avocados have a reputation for use in baked goods. Think cake, cookies, and brownies. Most recipes call for replacing some or all of the butter with avocado on a 1-to-1 basis, and then adding a little more of the wet ingredients as needed. I generally leave the dessert creations to my sweetheart, so I asked if he'd be interested in creating a flourless, non-dairy, avocado-based healthy dessert - you know one that is gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, whole-grain, low-sodium, vegetarian, and vegan. (Help! I'm turning into a New Age health food advertisement.) With typical élan, he put together some very tasty chocolate avocado energy balls from avocado, oats, almonds, dates, and cocoa powder. Here's the no-bake recipe, courtesy of the Hass Avocado Board. Although my sweetheart did not use a Hass avocado, these came out great. They proved to be delicious straight from the freezer, as they never freeze solid.

Chocolate almond avocado oat bites

There are some good reasons to grow your own avocados, if you have the room, the climate, and the well-drained soil for it. Industrial avocado production in Mexico, the largest exporter of avocados to the United States, starts with deforestation and forest thinning. In addition to reducing wildlife habitat, this has the undesirable effect of leaving the area more prone to forest fires. In contrast, the imposing avocado tree in my yard provides dense shade, which is an environmental gift during the warmer months in Florida, which encompasses the larger part of the year. 

Once the land is cleared, industrial avocado orchards are grown as large monocultures. In 2018, the avocado acreage worldwide stood at 361,000 hectares. Since hectares don't convey much to me, I converted this to something more meaningful. It's larger than the state of Rhode Island. That's a lot of land for just one crop! Monocultures not only reduce the local flora and fauna, but soil fertility as well. In my yard, the large avocado tree counts a diversity of trees as neighbors, including a mango, a fig, a jaboticaba, and a sugar apple. No monoculture necessary. 

Avocado monocultures require lots of irrigation. The numbers are astronomical. How is it that Chile uses 96.8 gallons of water to produce just one pound of avocados? Starting avocado plantations in a semiarid area in Chile is certainly a contributing factor. Civil Eats reported about the overuse hazard in 2014.

"Since the early 1990s, the number of acres planted with avocados has grown more than seven-fold in Chile, from around 9,000 acres in 1993 to 71,000 today. Ninety percent of that acreage belongs to large-scale Hass avocado producers. To irrigate their farms, these producers have drilled deep wells and used so much of the region’s waters that small farmers with shallow wells–and some nearby towns–are left with no water."

I am a bit stumped concerning the excessive need for water. I am convinced that the roots of the large, established avocado tree in my yard have found enough water to live without any irrigation. We tend to water regardless, as we are prone to extended dry periods. 

I do not blame the avocado for any of these detrimental effects. Rather it is industrial farming and the associated lack of environmental and land use regulation that it seeks, encourages, and oftentimes brings about. You can avoid all of these problems, by growing an avocado tree in your own backyard.

If you are thinking of growing an avocado tree, there are a few potential inconveniences to consider. Our small seedling performed admirably with its evergreen, ever-expanding canopy. It grows 10-15 feet a year. This makes for lots of shady foliage as well as lots of pruning. When Hurricane Irma came through in 2017, she took down the northeast facing side of our avocado tree. Avocado limbs are brittle and easily broken in a strong wind, so we try to keep the tree small, to about 15 feet. It feels like we cut down half the tree every year. Which is really to say that my sweetheart cuts down half the tree every year. That tree would be long gone, if I had to do the pruning.

Spotting avocados up in the tree can be challenging.
Can you spot the two Florida Hass avocados in this tree? 

All the experts warn that seed-grown avocados can take a long time to start bearing fruit. I can wholeheartedly attest to this. After many years of active pruning, we still hadn't seen any signs of fruit. There were flowers, but no fruit. My sweetheart drew from farmer folklore and tried many remedies, including pounding 15 carpet tacks into the trunk. Nothing worked, until he sprayed neem oil shortly after flowering, on the theory that a fungus might be preventing fruit development. That year we got fruit. We were about ten years in, and my guess is that the tree was only just mature enough to start making fruit. We haven't used neem oil since that first time, but we continue to get fruit. When experts say that seed-grown avocados can take ten years to produce fruit, believe them. Consider a grafted variety, if you are in more of a hurry.

Twelve years after planting our first avocado, laurel wilt disease arrived in a commercial avocado production area of Florida. Laurel wilt is now a potential threat to all avocado trees in the State of Florida. It is caused by a fungus, spread by several beetles, and is fatal to the tree. Our tree has not been affected, and with luck will stay that way. 

When choosing an avocado to plant, I did not do my homework. I did not check into pollination requirements, nor did I look into whether there were other avocado trees in the neighborhood for cross-pollinating purposes. I just went by taste and got lucky. I don't recommend this route. I suggest you research cultivars - whether they are A type or B type varieties; when the fruit matures; how frost sensitive they are; whether they are disease-resistant; and how tall the tree gets. Find one that is right for you and your space. 

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