Cold-Hardy Avocados

Discover these northern avocado cultivars that are hardy enough to survive without much heat.

| Spring 2017

It’s a typical day in Northern California — cool, gray, drippy — and water streaks across Ellen Baker’s wool sweater as she leans into thick, glossy foliage to pluck two dangling fruits. They’re avocados (Persea americana).

“We didn’t know how they’d produce here, but turns out they do great,” Baker says, cradling the bumpy, green-black fruits in one hand.

California is avocado country. Ninety-five percent of all avocados grown in the United States are from California, and 65 percent of those come from orchards in San Diego and Ventura counties. Baker’s home and her business, Epicenter Nursery, are in the coastal foothills near Santa Cruz, about two hours south of San Francisco, where the climate is nothing like the dry, blue-sky heat of Southern California. The 30 or so cultivars in her orchard look out of place next to heavily laden apple trees. “People said we were wasting our time planting avocados north of Monterey,” Baker shrugs, “but these avocados really don’t need a lot of heat.”

Avocado Experiments

It’s been 12 years since Baker and her husband, Fred Menge, started their avocado experiment. First, they planted cultivars recommended by the University of California, Irvine’s Avocado Collection that are hardy to their area’s lowest temperature — around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Some did well, such as ‘Jan Boyce,’ ‘Reed,’ and ‘Carmen.’ Baker flatly didn’t like the fruit of others, such as ‘Mexicola.’ Within a few years, Baker became convinced that she and Menge could find better-tasting avocados that were also better suited to their climate. They began detouring through old neighborhoods, knocking on doors to ask for a taste of backyard avocados on a search for what Baker calls the “Holy Grail.” They found survivors as old as 100 years in abandoned lots, on farms, and occasionally on public streets growing through cracks in the pavement, such as the 30-plus-year-old tree that grows outside the Bonny Doon Vineyard office in downtown Santa Cruz (pictured above). “It’s a tough little sucker,” Baker says, fingering a leaf of the tree’s progeny in her orchard. “It’s what we’re looking for — ones that are really good and will make it through frost. We want a really great avocado; we don’t want a crappy avocado that survives to 20 degrees.”

Old trees in the Bay Area are relics from a time when people believed in a rosier future for northern avocados. A photograph published in a Santa Cruz newspaper in 1935 featured Henry Dakin, who had just won a county fair prize for fruits from his 22-year-old avocado orchard. Captions reported that Dakin grew 125 trees and shipped the slender, green-skinned ‘Fuerte’ cultivar to markets in San Francisco at substantial profit. The newspaper cheerfully predicted that farmers throughout the Bay Area would be sure to follow suit, making the then-infant avocado industry a statewide phenomenon.

Hardy Diversity in the North

In 1935, avocado growers had heard it was possible to grow the trees in northern counties — a tree planted in 1879 stood over the University of California, Berkeley, campus well into the 1960s — but back then growing larger plantings of avocados anywhere in California was experimental. (The bumpy black ‘Hass’ cultivar, today’s supermarket standard, had just been patented that year.)

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