Avocado Family Tree

During the blazing hot summer months in Georgia, my eating habits suddenly change. My produce bills start to go up as I toss more and more avocados in my grocery cart. I seem to be drawn to more authentic Mexican restaurants with fresh, chunky guacamole. Without realizing what I’m doing, I order menu items just because they have the word “avocado” in the description. What is it about this vegetable that inexplicably draws me to it when the temperature heats up? This cool, creamy, smooth, refreshing, heavenly—

Excuse me while I faceplant into this bowl of guacamole.

Culinarily speaking, avocados are considered vegetables. Botanically, however, the avocado is definitely a fruit. Specifically, a berry. Yes, I am aware the avocado looks nothing like a blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, or any other fruit-like object that people have slapped the “berry” label on.  Oh, and by the way – none of those are berries anyway.

Berries are fleshy fruits with seeds contained in a single ovary. If it has seeds in one fruit body from many ovaries *coughcoughblackberrycough*, then it is not a berry. It’s called an aggregate fruit. If the fruit’s so called “seeds” are actually teeny tiny individual fruits (with their own ovaries) all lumped together, then it’s an accessory fruit – meaning strawberries are not even close to true berries.

The jig is up, straw-”berry.” We know your secret.

Avocados, or Persea americana, are a widely cultivated species in the Lauraceae, or laurel, family. Laurels are known for their aromatic oils, small round flowers with spirals of stamens  (aka, boy parts), and fleshy fruits – such as enormously fleshy avocado berries.

The fleshy part of the avocado is technically the mesocarp.  I prefer it’s common name, the deliciousness.

Another cultivated member of the laurel family tree (See what I did there? Clever, eh?) is Cinnamomum, or simply, cinnamon. Rather than being cultivated for its fruits, these plants are grown for their bark and harvested to create spices and herbs.

That’s right, your morning bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch came courtesy of some tree bark. You’re welcome.

One member of the laurel family that is native, rather than cultivated, here in the southeast United States is the redbay, or Persea borbonia. Often outshadowed by majestic live oaks, this small tree has been gaining more than it’s fair share of attention in the last decade due to a particularly nasty strain of laurel wilt.

The wilt is caused by a fungus transmitted by the redbay ambrosia beetle (an exotic pest) and is currently wreaking havoc on Georgia’s redbay population – and is expected to keep moving along the coast. This is terrible news for turkey, bobwhite quail, songbirds and deer, which all eat various parts of the redbay plant. It’s even worse news for three species of swallowtail butterfly, which all produce larva that is dependent on redbay leaves.

I know this creeper spicebush swallowtail butterfly larva looks like he could destroy anything that tries to take his food, but he’s pretty defenseless against laurel wilt.

And if we’re not careful, it could spell doom for lovers of decently priced avocados. Redbay and avocado are not only members of the same family, but the same genus. In 2007, five years after the arrival of the laurel wilt fungus in the Southeast, Florida’s first avocado plant fell victim to the disease. It sounds devastating, and it very well could be. But there is action that can be taken. Leaving the research and policy making to the experts, there are several easy things we can do to help: avoid transporting firewood or dumping yard waste, donate money to research efforts, and simply spread knowledge of the problem to more Southeast citizens.

Please help stop the spread of the redbay ambrosia beetle. Avocados are expensive enough as it is  Save the Redbays!


2 responses to “Avocado Family Tree

  1. Love it Susan

  2. Mmmm. You’ve made me crave avocado… oh well, I can be comforted by the fact that there are two packages of red raspberries waiting for me in my parents’ fridge.

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