A Brief History of Avocados

Purplish-black and leathery on the outside; green turning to yellow when ripe; soft and creamy on the inside with a rock-hard pit in the middle — that is an avocado.

This tree-born fruit (technically a berry) hails from central Mexico, with evidence of human cultivation back as far as 5,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests people have been using avocados for as long as 9,000 years. So, it seems that at about the same time that corn, beans, and squash were coming into widespread use in Mesoamerica, so too was the avocado, at least in the regions where the plant was endemic.

The fruit has been known as the avocado pear or alligator pear (because of its shape and usually knobby and somewhat wrinkled skin), but most people just call them avocados these days (occasionally shortened to just “avo”). The scientific name is Persea americana, with the genus name Persea apparently deriving from an old Greek name for a different tree species known as Assyrian plum (Cordia myxa). How that came about is not exactly clear, but the specific epithet “americana” means from or of the Americas.

The avocado may originally hail from Central America, but it is now grown in many places where the climate is warm and sunny with little chance of frost. The only places in the U.S. where avocados can be grown outdoors are the southern half of Florida, the bottom tip of Texas, far western parts of Arizona and California, and Hawaii. California started in the avocado business in 1871 with trees imported from Mexico and has developed into the biggest avocado-producing state in the U.S.

There are many varieties in cultivation including Fuerte, Bacon, Lulu, and Hass. Fuerte was once popular but Hass is the type commonly found in grocery stores these days.

Read also: A Brief History of Strawberries

The avocado is considered a “low processing” fruit, meaning you don’t have to do much to it to get it to market. Avocados have the convenient property of not ripening on the tree (in nature they ripen after they fall off the tree), meaning they can be picked to ripen after they get to their destination. Avocados are tough, too, which makes packaging and shipping easier than it is with more delicate fruit.

Mexico remains the world’s largest producer by far with export market share greater than 40 percent in 2019. Interestingly, the Netherlands is a big exporter of avocados. Since you can’t really grow avocados economically in Holland, what is the deal with that? It turns out that the Netherlands imports avocados in quantity, mostly from South America and South Africa, and then exports them to other European countries for a profit.

Including domestically produced fruit, about 20 percent of all the world’s avocados are consumed in the U.S. That’s a lot of guacamole and avocado toast.
Speaking of guacamole and avocado toast, what are avocados good for anyway?

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The avocado has an umami flavor all its own that lends itself to many savory or even sweet dishes. The texture is often described as “buttery.” Avocados are considered to be nutrient and photochemically “dense,” meaning they have a lot of good stuff in them. Stuff like fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamins A, C, E and K, folate… and more. Plus, avocados are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (the good kinds).

Although outdoor cultivation is limited to tropical areas, the avocado makes for an attractive house plant even though it is unlikely to ever develop fruit indoors. Sprouting avocado seeds is relatively easy. Give an avocado seed (the pit) a good cleaning and use toothpicks to suspend it over a glass or bowl with half of the fat end submerged in water and wait awhile. Eventually, you’ll be rewarded with an attractive addition to your plant collection.

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