By Glenn I. Teves, UH CTAHR County Extension Agent
Mid-summer is the leanest season for avocado in Hawaii, but the West Indies avocado fills the void and is there for the picking. The most heat-tolerant avocado, it’s the best adapted to the lowlands of Molokai, although it doesn’t do well along the shore where salty winds and soils can cause burning of roots and leaf edges.
The avocado is native to Mexico, where it’s been eaten before 10,000 BC. It spread throughout the Caribbean, Central and South American, evolving into three distinct races: the high-quality and cold-tolerant Mexican, the tropical forest Guatemalan, and the heat-tolerant, lowland West Indies.
The West Indies avocado usually has elongated fruit, many with a neck and thin to medium green skin many turning purple when ripe, and a tear-drop shaped seed.
Most Hawaiian avocados today are crosses of two or more races through cross-pollination of the first trees which were introduced to Hawaii in 1825. Some avocados, such as the Mexican race, have aromatic leaves reminiscent of its close relatives, cinnamon, camphor and bay laurel.
Although all avocados flower around the same time in late winter triggered by cold wet weather, the West Indies avocado is first to the finish line in six months, maturing in mid-summer. Others can take over a year from flowering to harvest. The oil content of avocados is an important characteristic that separates a good avocado from a great one with a buttery, greasy consistency and a full-bodied taste, and can range from less than five percent to 30 percent. Some selections of West Indies avocados can be quite stringy and watery with low oil content, but if that’s the only local avocado in season, then the one in front of you is the best to be found.
Avocado varieties are classified into two flower types, A and B, so one of each type should be planted nearby to enhance cross pollination and good fruit set. Flower types are distinguished by what time of day flowers open. Each flower opens twice daily and is functionally female (pollen receptive) at first opening and functionally male (pollen shedding) at second opening, so a tree usually won’t pollinate itself. Trees are usually planted 30 to 35 feet apart and require good wind protection. Soil should be well drained and have a pH of 6.3 or higher to prevent a root rot disease, Phytophthora, so hilly areas are preferred planting areas in many parts of world.
Early stages of flowering and fruit set are critical to prevent flower and early fruit drop from fluctuating weather, especially in dry periods of early spring to summer. During this period, it’s important that trees have adequate water, which also affects the flow of nutrients to the flower and fruit, but too much water can adversely affect taste and quality. Fertilizers high in salts can cause the same conditions created by salt air, and can be avoided by using organic fertilizer and decayed manures.
Avocado consumption is at an all-time high, making it the number one fruit in America, and is mostly of one variety, Hass. The avocado is eaten more on Super Bowl Sunday, over 120 million pounds, than any other day or even week for that matter! In Hawaii, where there‘s over 500 acres of avocados, about 40 percent never make it to market ending up on the ground as we continue to import over 2.5 million pounds of avocados annually from abroad. What’s wrong with this picture?