How Avocados Thrived When They Should Have Gone Extinct

by | Botany

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In this HerbSpeak article, we’re going to dive into the seedy truth of why exactly the humble avocado (Persea spp.) is still around, and why they didn’t die off with the animals that dispersed the seed.

Animals are one of the most critical aspects of a plant’s life cycle acting as a pollinator or method of seed dispersal. Sometimes, that pollinator is the wind, sending small airborne seeds flying through the air.

Other times, it is an animal, using Zoochory as a method of seed dispersal. In the avocado’s case, these pollinators need to be able to withstand the seed’s mild toxin and manipulate – or eat – the large inner seed.  

The Seedy Truth: How Do You Escape Extinction When Your Pollinators Die?

You might be surprised to learn that avocados shouldn’t exist. Most fruit and berries rely on their flesh and seed being eaten whole, then processed through the digestive tract of the animal. Once the seed has gone through the digestive tract and found its way back into the soil, the outer seed coat – called the testa – would then be soft enough for the cotyledon to break through and begin to root.

Except, there is one problem:

Have you seen how large the pits are?

Furthermore, the skin and pit contain a compound called Persin, which is considered toxic to a wide range of animals. Birds, horses, cats, dogs, rodents, you name it…

It is classically thought that avocados were spread with the help of giant ground sloths and mammoths. Those animals, however, have been extinct for a little over 13,000 years.

When the world lost these keystone species, the world also lost a lot of the diverse megafauna of that era.

Scientists aren’t sure how – perhaps it was a mix of the fruit accidentally falling to the ground and being kicked about before sprouting, or burial from rodents in acidic soils – but avocados managed to survive long enough for humans to come around.

Being one of the only known species to be able to tolerate avocado, or at least remove the skin and seed from the flesh, humans started eating the fruits. Several thousand years later the Mesoamerican people started cultivating the fruit as well, which was the beginning of our current avocado culture.

Why Can Humans Eat Avocado?

There are several reasons why humans can eat avocados, and a lot of that comes from the fact that we can peel avocados and remove the pits, which contain the largest concentrations of persin.

While the levels of persin are nominal, allowing our bodies to process the toxin appropriately, large amounts of it can be harmful to the body.

Of course, individuals who are sensitive to the fungicidal toxin or have a food allergy to avocados will experience allergic reactions.

Are Humans the Only Species That Can Eat Avocado?

Are you ready for a “Yes, but…” answer?

Yes, humans are the only species that can and do eat avocado in the modern world that we know of.

No, humans are not the only species that can eat avocado. If an animal is large enough to eat an avocado in a single bite, then it should be able to consume the avocado without any negative effect from the persin simply because of its body mass.

For example, rhinos, bison, giraffes, and whales should all be able to consume avocados, at least in small amounts, without any negative effects. Those animals, however, are either not endemic to the same areas where avocados grow (I’m looking at you, whales) or they simply do not eat avocado.

This leaves humans alone as the single species to consume and cultivate avocados, single-handedly creating a way for the avocado to thrive.

History of the Avocado

You might be surprised to learn that the avocado actually has a rich history that has developed alongside human culture over the last few thousand years.

Despite the avocado only coming into popular use in North America fairly recently, it has long since been involved in deep PR campaigns, steeped in cultural significance.

Discovered by the Mesoamericans as Early as 10,000 B.C.E.

There is archaeological evidence that avocados were consumed in Mesoamerica as early as 10,000 B.C.E. (1)

Americans devour 7 pounds of avocado per person each year, compared to 1 pound on average back in 1989.

Smithsonian

These avocados were revered for their ability to act as an aphrodisiac, stimulate childbirth, and increase overall energy levels.

These claims have not been verified, but it is believed to have been the common usage for the berry by the people in Central America at the time.

The Avocado and the Spanish Conquistadors

In the early 16th century, a Spanish Conquistador was one of the first people to try an avocado. He gave it a glowing review, stating that the flesh was “a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.”

From Ahuacatl to Aguacate and Avocado

The Spanish were the first to call the fruit Aguacate when they discovered it and wrote this into a report back to the homeland. This is a misrepresentation of the Aztec word Ahuacatl as the conquistadors could not pronounce the original name correctly, despite their love for the buttery flesh. 

The first written record of this being changed to Avocado in English was in 1696 when Hans Sloane referenced it in a text on Jamaican plants.

This was later solidified by American farmers who later founded the California Avocado Association in attempt to market the crop.

Rudolph Hass Purchases a Seedling

It was the 1920s, and at this point in time, commercial kitchens were ordering avocados for a hefty price, but the common public did not know how to use avocados.

The popular Hass avocado was named after Rudolph Hass, a postal employee who purchased a seed in 1926 from a Californian farmer. Intending to graft other varieties to the tree, he planted the seedling in his backyard. Fortunately, when the grafts wouldn’t take and Hass decided to cut the tree down, his children talked him out of the ordeal because they believed it to be superior in flavor.

Hass would later patent an avocado that had a purplish skin and smaller body than other varieties, making it easier to cultivate. Thus, the Hass avocado took the Californian market by storm in partnership with a nurseryman by the name of Harold Brokaw.

Hass never made much on his patent, as his colleague saturated the market demand by selling seedlings to anyone who wanted the crop, his nursery selling out of the tree every year, allowing others to plant the seeds that came from the fruit it bore. To further exacerbate this issue, patenting plant varieties was not commonplace at the time, therefore it was seldom enforced.

California’s Cash Crop

It wasn’t until the nearly turn of the 19th century that avocados were brought to the United States and domesticated. Later, Rudolph Hass would help Californian farmers cultivate their crop by providing them with an easier cultivar than what they had previously been working with.

Around the same time, a clothing and food retail store Marks & Spencer claims to have introduced imported avocados to the United Kingdom for sale under the name of “avocado pears.”

Still, neither countries’ populous knew what to do with the crop, leaving it to what seemed like failing popularity.

The Rise of the Avocado’s Supreme Reign

In the early 1990s, the California Avocado Association was looking for new ways to market their crop, else it would cease to be profitable for them to continue growing.

They needed some way to appeal to the general populous, especially since an earlier event had nearly crippled the crop’s PR: the low-fat diet craze of the ‘80s.

First step: get popular food items onto the market that use the avocado. Soon, guacamole would start showing up in stores across the country.

While they initially thought they would combat the PR issue by educating the public on good and bad fats, this was quickly abandoned as it would take years (years that the avocado industry did not have) for this method of marketing to work.

They turned to a mascot, “The Mr. Ripe Guy”, which never panned out.

They spread the good word of the avocado among the masses, which their missionaries came back in defeat from.

Still, the general public would not bat an eye towards the lowly avocado.

Instead, they looked to another source of PR: the Super Bowl.

This was one time in the year that no one paid attention to their caloric intake and simply snacked away happily on chips and dip, among other fatty foods.

In 1992, the PR firm Hill & Knowlton orchestrated what was known as the “Guacamole Bowl” where both teams would share their favorite guacamole recipes. The public would be able to vote on which was their favorite after trying the recipes.

That was the jackpot that lit the avocado media on fire. From athletes to news outlets, avocado facts and recipes were filling the homes of Americans, and the avocado trend started ramping up.

An Avocado Future: Is World Domination Next?

Today, over 11 billion pounds of avocados are eaten each year, tripling in number in just under a decade with no sign of stopping, especially as the healthy eating trends have caught wind in recent years. Avocado is an excellent source of nutrition and healthy fats, providing a valuable nutritional source to humans.

While avocados are predominantly grown in Mexico and California, they are grown all across the globe and thrive in different climates thanks to human interference. Is world domination next?

It sounds funny, but world domination is ultimately the goal of all plants, so avocados have an unfair advantage with humans on their side.

Think about that next time you take a good long look at your lawn.

Unfortunately, this is a problem because avocados do take a significant amount of water to grow. Just last year, an estimated 10 billion liters of water was used in producing avocados on farms daily in Mexico alone.

Like many industrial farms, they take up valuable space that is harming the survivability of the ecosystem, contributing to deforestation efforts and overall soil degradation.

Avoquestions:

‘Ey! Your avo’questions are all answered here.

Yeah, you.

If you have any other questions for this section, pop it into the comments and let me know – you may see it in a future update!

What Were Avocados Originally Used For?

Avocados were originally eaten as an aphrodisiac. The Nahuatl word for avocado, ahuacatl, translates to “testicle.”

Yup.

Because the avocados grow in pairs and look suspiciously like the male organ, they were thought to help increase the libido and were a sign of fertility to the Aztec people.

The healthy fats and nutritional value of avocados may have also contributed to this belief because it would certainly help boost the energy levels of those who consumed the fruit.

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When Were Avocados Domesticated?

Avocados were originally domesticated in Mesoamerica approximately 5,000 years ago. There is archeological record of cultivated avocado seeds and rough plots for planting in Puebla State, Mexico.

There is historical record of the fruit being consumed much earlier than that, though it is believed that the purposeful domestication and cultivation did not occur until sometime between 4,000-2,800 B.C.E.

Who Was the First Person to Eat an Avocado?

It is impossible to tell who the very first person to eat an avocado may have been. As they are known to have been a part of the Mesoamerican culture for at least 10,000 years prior, there is no written record of the first person’s discovery and eating of avocado. Still, the fruit bore with it a lot of cultural significance, easily making it one of the most significant ethnobotanicals in the region.

The first modern written account of the avocado is in 1518 when conquistadors first tried the fruit. (1) Avocados were given as a gift to the conquistadors upon their arrival.

In the centre of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut, and between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and a paste similar to butter and of very good taste,

Fernández de Oviedo

This report was sent back to England, becoming one of the first accounts of the English having heard about the food.

Are Avocados Really from Mexico?

Yes, the avocados that we know in today’s culture did arise from Mesoamerican culture as it had an important place in the peoples’ diet from well before settlers first set foot on their shores.

There is evidence that the avocado was present in Mexico around 10,000 years ago, and cultivated by the peoples 5,000 years ago. Archaeologist Claude Earle Smithe Jr. discovered the remains of an avocado’s cotyledon within a cave deposit in Tehuacán, Puebla state.

In opposition to this evidence, there are some reports that claim that due to the overwhelmingly supportive climate for avocado cultivation in 16,000 B.C.E., the fleshy berry may have originated in Africa. There is, however, little evidence of this to support the claim. Avocados today are grown across the world.

How Did the Avocado Trend Start?

While this story might vary depending on what part of the world you are in, the avocado trend in the United States is among one of the most explosive.

In the ‘80s, the United States pushed out a new dietary guideline that recommended a low-fat diet, which many people took to include all fats, not just bad fats. This included avocado.

This dealt massive damage to what was the avocado’s somewhat known presence, though many people still didn’t know how to use an avocado or even how to cut it. Because of this, despite commercials and advertisements to combat this negative press, it was not enough for the avocado to regain popularity and the industry continued to suffer.

As Latin American cuisine became more popular, however, the avocado became more popular as well, and people began to understand how to better use it in everyday dishes. In 1990, the California Avocado Commission (yes, that’s a thing) introduced a mascot called Mr. Ripe Guy to help give rise to a new PR campaign.

Finally, what really cemented the avocado in popularity is showcasing the avocado on the Super Bowl as a part of the “Guacamole Bowl”, where NFL players would share their favorite recipes and taste test samples.

Bam. 70% increase in sales and more interest in the benefits of avocados, which would only continue to grow its popularity as time went on.

Furthermore, as vegan, raw, and vegetarian diets began getting more positive press in 2010 and on, the avocado was put in the spotlight yet again as a great solution to healthy fats and plenty of nutrition with a great taste.

What Happens If You Eat Avocado Skin? 

If you managed to pop a small sliver into your mouth with your latest bite of avocado, you might be fretting over whether it’s safe to eat or not. Thankfully, the only thing that happens is an unpleasant taste.

Moreover, there are people who revere the skin’s nutritional content and purposefully eat it. While this is not advised, as the skin does contain small amounts of persin, it is better just to eat more ripe avocado flesh to obtain the nutrition you are after. The skin is bitter and oddly textured, making for an unpleasant experience all around.

What Happens If You Eat an Avocado Pit? 

You may have head before that the pit of an avocado is poisonous before, particularly if you were a wayward child looking for an ornery snack.

Fortunately, the truth isn’t as devious as your parents probably made it sound. Avocado pits contain a small amount of the fungicidal toxin persin. This toxin is present in the skin, bark, and leaves of the avocado tree, and it is the primary reason why animals cannot eat avocado.

Much like apples and their cyanide content, however, avocado pits only contain a small amount of the toxin. There is not enough to be significantly harmful if you were to somehow manage to eat a whole pit. The toxin only becomes dangerous if eaten in large quantities. 

References

References:

  1. Brian Handwerk, Holy Guacamole: How the Hass Avocado Conquered the World, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/holy-guacamole-how-hass-avocado-conquered-world-180964250/
  2. Guy Kelly, A Cultural History of the Avocado, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/87a56e5c-6d41-4495-9e22-523efb6b4cb0

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

2 Comments

  1. Gordon Smith

    I lived in Costa Rica 10 years and spent most of that time in the rain forest in Corcovado Osa peninsula,native wild Avacodo Trees are common on ridge tops, when ever I wanted to find these trees all I had to do was look for the canopy shaking , The white faced monkeys were always in these trees, they would drop avacodos on me to try and run me off, these trees where well over 100 ft tall, and the avacodo was perfectly round the size of a tennis ball, with only a quarter inch of meat,but very good, the pits were huge, monkeys, Codymundies, peckerys- wild pigs all spread the seeds and birds like the Tucan, Kind Regards Gordon Smith

    Reply
    • D.K. Berard

      So long as you wear a good protective hat, that sounds like it could be a fun way to get your avocados delivered right to you! My limited experience with monkeys is that they like to get into mischief no matter where they are, but they’re very intelligent. Sounds like they came across a good source of nutrition with those avocados! Thanks so much for sharing, it brightens my day to hear about your experience 🙂

      Reply

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