If there was any fruit that identified most with Southern California, that icon of buttery goodness would be the avocado.
The Hass avocado, once an obscure cultivar, now accounts for 80 percent of the world’s avocado crop and 90 percent of California’s avocado crop, where San Diego leads the way with the highest number of orchards.
Its namesake, Rudolph Hass, was a US Postal Service carrier and a hobby horticulturist living in La Habra Heights, California. In 1926, Hass purchased seeds from a fellow avocado enthusiast and planted them in his fledgling avocado grove.
The subspecies of the seeds was never known, but many believe they came from a Guatemalan hybrid that had already been cross-pollinated by the time Hass bought them.
Only one seedling survived out of those seeds, and after many failed attempts to graft the seedling with branches from Fuerte avocado trees (the industry standard at the time), Hass decided to leave his little tree be… after being convinced not to cut it down in favor of his more reliable cultivars.
When the tree began bearing odd, bumpy fruit, Hass and his family sold what they couldn’t eat to co-workers at the post office and to the Model Grocery Store in Pasadena. The superior flavor and high demand firmly put the Hass avocado in its place as a luxury fruit, selling for $1 each (equivalent to today’s adjusted cost of $15… can you imagine paying over $30 for a bowl of guacamole these days??).
Hass patented his tree in 1935 (the first U.S. patent ever granted for a tree) and contracted with a local grower, Harold Brokaw, to produce grafted seedlings from the cuttings of this tree. The Hass avocado grew quicker, yielded more, lasted longer, and tasted better than the Fuerte avocado, eventually becoming the Big Kahuna in the commercial avocado market by the 1970s.
From that single mama tree that Rudolph Hass started from seed, comes every single Hass avocado tree that exists in the world today. Just imagine the first cuttings that Brokaw took, spawning generations of cuttings over the course of 80 years, all propagated from that one tree. How trippy is that?
The mama tree lived on in suburbia after Hass’ death in 1952 and was cared for by Brokaw’s nephew until its own demise in 2002. The tree struggled with root fungus for more than a decade and was eventually cut down. Two plaques commemorate the spot where it grew near a private residence at 426 West Road in La Habra Heights (should you find yourself in the neighborhood and want to wow yourself with a piece of agricultural history).
If you live in California and have an avocado tree in your yard, chances are it’s a Hass. And chances are, it’s just dripping with fruit right about now, and you’re wondering when they’ll start to soften.
Don’t make my mistake the first year I moved into my house, and just wait… and wait… and wait… until my avocados started dropping to the ground one by one, over-mature. And definitely don’t pick them before their prime, else you’ll just cut into a piece of rubber that even tastes like rubber (yes, I’ve tried).
So how can you tell when an avocado is ripe on the tree? The short answer is, you can’t.
I know, not very helpful. But wait!