Aficionados hunt for the world’s rarest avocadosFor many people in Latin America, this fruit is a dietary staple, often used in smoothies, ice cream, avocado mousse and even juice.
By: ALASTAIR BLAND, Slate
Each tree that Richard Campbell walks past in the Florida orchard where he works reminds him of a person, a place and a story.
One of Campbell’s favorite botanical biographies here is that of the Blas avocado, a large green-skinned fruit with flesh as runny as warm butter. He first found the tree about a decade ago in a village called San Mateo in the coastal lowlands of Costa Rica. According to local lore, the tree — a gnarly old giant with smooth skin and olive-green, half-moon leaves — had grown from an avocado pit discarded more than a century before. The tree’s fruit had garnered such regional fame that some people would travel nearly 100 miles during harvest time to collect piles of it in oxcarts.
Campbell located the owner of the tree and got his permission to remove several branch tips for grafting. Today, two clones of the original grow in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., where Campbell and several other fruit collectors have established a vast collection of tropical tree fruits, including mangos, jackfruits, mamey sapotes and durians.
There are some 200 varieties of avocados alone, most of them collected by Campbell and his frequent collection partner, Noris Ledesma, between 2002 and 2008 on a series of expeditions to Central America and the Caribbean. This region, bounded by Hispaniola, Panama and southern Mexico, is the place of wild origin of the West Indian avocado. This subspecies of Persea americana, or the common avocado, is distinguished by its fruit’s smooth green skin, low oil content, sweet and juicy flesh, and large size — usually more than a pound in weight.
For many people in Latin America, this fruit is a dietary staple, often used in smoothies, ice cream, avocado mousse and even juice. (By contrast, the popular Hass avocado — a hybrid of the Mexican and Guatemalan subspecies — has thick, oily meat, well suited for guacamole.)
Florida farmers have grown West Indian avocados for years, though only a few varieties. Campbell and Ledesma believe that thousands more exist in the coastal areas south of the Bahamas. Here grow native avocado varieties that occur nowhere else in the world, making them especially valuable to geneticists seeking to preserve and study rare plants.
Campbell and Ledesma’s goal is to collect as many of these undiscovered avocado types as possible and preserve them in the Fairchild collection. This ambition is not merely the product of aesthetic appreciation of the fruit. In truth, thanks to development, deforestation, and climate change, avocado breeds are disappearing more quickly than Campbell and Ledesma can collect them, and many types could disappear before they are even discovered.
Fruit collectors have been embarking on exotic tree-hunting safaris for centuries. The first leg of the famously doomed 1787 voyage of Lt. William Bligh on the soon-to-be-mutinied HMS Bounty was, in fact, a mission to collect breadfruit saplings in Tahiti. Bligh’s assignment was to transport the young trees from the Pacific to the Caribbean and thereby introduce a new source of food to the islands’ slave camps.
A century later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent several explorers to Turkey, Greece, Italy and North Africa in search of desirable fig varieties, with the hope (ultimately successful) of launching a profitable industry in the similar climes of California. At about the same time, David Fairchild, for whom the Fairchild Garden is named, was conducting his own exotic plant exploration for the United States government. Fairchild ultimately helped introduce pistachios, nectarines, Chinese soy beans and mangos to Americans.
Today, scientists from many nations continue the hunt for new or exotic plants.