How Far Would You Travel for a Rare Breed of Avocado?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 4 2012 4:30 AM

The World’s Rarest Avocados

And the men and women who are trying to collect all of them—before it’s too late.

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The next step is tracing an interesting fruit back to the tree from which it was picked—an often challenging feat that may depend on the assistance of a local guide familiar with the region’s geography and its farmers. Even after the collector has pinpointed the location of a tree, another hurdle may be convincing its owner to allow branches to be cut. “They’re often worried that we’re trying to put them out of business or that they’ll lose their income if they give us any wood,” Campbell says. Sometimes, befriending locals in the village bar over several rounds of beer can do the trick. And to quell any lingering suspicions, Campbell usually provides written assurances of royalties on fruit sales should the tree ever become a cultivated commercial variety.

Through their many expeditions and negotiations, Campbell and Ledesma have brought some knockout avocados back to the Fairchild Garden. There is one they found in a backyard garden in Rivas, Nicaragua called the Pura Vida. The Pura Vida bears gourd-shaped fruits averaging 18 inches in length, with some growing as long as 3 feet. Then there’s the Juan Jose, an avocado Campbell and Ledesma found growing on a tree in Costa Rica and whose fruits contain no seed at all—just light, creamy flesh within a soft, green skin. Campbell and Ledesma dubbed another the “car wash avocado” after the rural outpost where they found the tree growing in Guatemala. Similarly, there are two “truck stop avocados,” each collected from a roadside truckers’ café in Guatemala.

Other fruit collectors have favorite stories from the hunt, too. USDA researcher John Preece tells of the seeds he culled from a grove of wild olive trees growing amid the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Butrint in Albania. He had seen the trees on a hillside from the distance, and access could only be gained by paying the admission fee to the popular tourist attraction. On the same trip, Preece followed a trail of rumors to locate a bizarre walnut with three kernels inside the shell instead of the usual two—not necessarily a walnut with commercial potential but certainly one of interest to a plant geneticist. This summer, USDA geneticist Malli Aradhya was touring Azerbaijan on the hunt for stone fruits, pomegranates, and figs—but the local government-run fig orchard was crawling with deadly gurza vipers. Four groundskeepers had already been struck that summer. Aradhya decided not to test his luck.

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Deliberating whether or not to enter a snake-infested orchard to sample figs may seem crazy, but there’s urgency in the work of Aradhya and other fruit collectors. In many centers of diversity, like Southeast Asia, Kazakhstan, and Central America, logging operations threaten to eliminate fruits before they’ve ever been discovered or tasted, let alone cataloged or named. Large-scale agriculture is a threat, too: Cotton farms in Nicaragua, pineapple fields in Costa Rica and Panama, and oil-palm plantations in Southeast Asia have replaced virgin forest and jungle, eliminating endemic treasures that will now never be known. As Campbell explains, “Big plantation agriculture is deadly to genetic resources of tree fruits.”

As a result of deforestation, many of the parent trees from which Campbell and Ledesma originally acquired their accessions are now gone—mostly cut down by their owners and sold for lumber. This leaves some of the avocados growing in the Fairchild collection absolutely unique, bearing genes and fruit that now exist nowhere else. The security of the collection will improve as area farmers and gardeners adopt Fairchild’s avocados into their own orchards.

Certain governments have grown uncooperative with out-of-country agricultural explorers, whether because of political strife or because they recognize the financial value of plant genetics. But plant trade continues freely over many borders, and Campbell and Ledesma recently embarked on a 10-day mango hunt in Borneo. Here, valuable genetic material embedded in the wood, leaves, and fruits of wild trees, is threatened by chainsaws advancing into the jungle. Lumber hunters also scout villages in Borneo and other areas where large backyard fruit trees are increasingly considered more valuable as wood than as producers of a household’s food. For every fruit tree saved by the world’s plant collectors, many others are sold by their owners to sawmills. Tree stumps in front yards, and village markets stockpiled with imported foods, tell this quiet story.

“In some of these places, it’s an emergency,” Ledesma says. “We have to find the surviving trees and bring them home before they disappear. The time is right now.”

Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He writes about the environment, science, bicycling, food, and agriculture. He travels frequently and can be followed at his blog Off the Road.

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