Bartlett on Gardening: Alligator Pears

Today is Cinco de Mayo, May 5, a celebration of Mexico’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla. The victory became a symbol of Mexican resistance though the final defeat of the French took another five years. The holiday is a minor one in Mexico but has become increasingly popular in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture. Loving Mexican food, we frequently fix our favorite dish, guacamole, and will definitely have some today.

​The avocado is native to Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. We know that it has been cultivated since 5000 BC. In pre-Columbian times it was introduced into western areas of South America which we now call Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. The Spanish brought it to Spain in 1601. They called the fruit aguacate from the Aztec name for it. This morphed to avocado in England, where its pear shape was linked with the name to eventually become alligator pear.

Avocados are not very easy to cultivate. A member of the laurel family, they are quite picky about their growing conditions, which must be frost-free and relatively windless. The trees have both male and female flowers, which must be present at the same time for pollination to occur. Interestingly, species from the Caribbean flower on a different schedule from the others, making cross breeding difficult if not impossible. Depending on cultivar, the trees take four to10 years to yield fruit.

Commercially, productive avocado tree wood is grafted onto rootstock to ensure consistent quality of fruit. Hass avocados, those most common in our stores, produce a crop every other year. The fruit may remain on the tree from October until June. As the fruit is harvested, it is often treated harmlessly with ethylene gas so that ripe fruit is delivered to the store.

(Photo: This avocado keeper works.)

Today avocados are grown in mild climates around the globe. Mexico is the leading producer worldwide. Peru is the number one exporter to Europe while California produces 95 percent of our avocados. The University of California at Riverside is the leading research facility for the industry.

​​You can grow an avocado plant from a seed. Support the pit you take from your grocery store avocado, pointed end up, in a glass of water. Sprouting should occur in about six weeks. Plant and care for it as a houseplant in a sunny window.

My dad nurtured one that he planted in our California backyard. It slowly grew to be about 12 feet tall and did flower one year. There was only one flower. Whether it was male or female remains a mystery. There was no fruit.

Nutritionally, avocados are high in monounsaturated fat, vitamin K and B vitamins. When choosing an avocado, avoid very dark soft ones. The green ones will ripen over two or three days on the counter. A firm ​​dark one is ready to eat immediately. Once the flesh is exposed to air, it quickly oxidizes—in other words, turns brown. To retard this process, squeeze lemon or lime juice over the cut surface.

Besides guacamole, avocados are delicious in salads or spread like butter on firm bread or toast.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett is a native Californian who loves her some guacamole!

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