Plant 324

Persea americana Mill. (Lauraceae)


The Resplendent Quetzal is a shimmering green bird native to the remote cloud forests of Central America. Despite its remote, rural existence, its diet is highly fashionable - it has a fondness for avocado fruits. A major part of its diet consists of wild avocados, members of the genus Persea, which comprises approximately 200 species distributed through tropical Asia and the Americas, and into the subtropics of the Northern Hemisphere. The quetzal plucks the fruit in flight, swallows it whole, and regurgitates the stone later, dispersing the seed from the site of the mother plant. Fruits of wild Persea species are conveniently beak-sized.

Cultivated avocados, fruits of Persea americana, are larger, similar in size and shape to a pear. This tropical evergreen tree with glossy, ovate leaves, and clusters of small, green flowers. Male and female flowers, which are on the same tree, open at different times to prevent self-pollination. Consequently, isolated trees rarely produce fruit.

Persea americana is thought to have been domesticated in Mexico and Central America, although thousands of years of cultivation have obscured its precise origins. Archaeological records show cultivation of avocados dates back at least to 8,000 BCE. The fruit was popular with the Aztecs, from whose word ahuacatl, we derive 'avocado'.

There are three races of Persea americana - Mexican, Guatemalan and West Indian - and many more cultivated varieties. Two of the most popular are the dark, warty-skinned 'Hass' and the smooth, green-skinned 'Fuerte'.

The nutritional profile of the avocado fruit is unusual, being low in sugar and high in oil, which makes it a rich source of energy for humans and quetzals alike. It also provides several important nutrients, including B vitamins, potassium and magnesium. In 1672, the English physician William Hughes, in the first description of Persea americana in the English language, agreed; the fruit 'nourisheth and strengtheneth the body.'

Over the past decade, the avocado has seen a surge in popularity, with global demand estimated to continue rising. Nutritional benefits may be a factor in this, but its oil-rich flesh also makes the fruit a useful substitute for animal products as vegetable-based diets become more popular. Increased demand potentially means increased profits, which, inevitably, inspires crime. In New Zealand, avocado orchards are targeted by thieves, who steal the crops, sometimes attacking growers. In Mexico, avocado cultivation has attracted organised criminal gangs involved in murder, slavery and the illegal destruction of protected environmental sites.

Further reading

Galindo-Tovar ME et al. 2008. Some aspects of avocado (Persea americana Mill.) diversity and domestication in Mesoamerica. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 55: 441-450.

Ornelas RG 2018. Organized crime in Michoacán: rent?seeking activities in the avocado export market. Politics & Policy 46: 759-789.

Wheelwright NT 1983. Fruits and the ecology of Resplendent Quetzals. The Auk 100: 286-301.

Ruth Calder