The native home of the avocado is on the mainland of tropical America. Persea drymifolia is abundant in the wild state on the lower slopes of the volcano Orizaba, in southern Mexico, as well as in other parts of that country. The extent of its distribution is not precisely known. The native home of P. americana has not been determined with certainty, since the tree has been so long in cultivation and few efforts have as yet been made to locate the region in which it is truly indigenous.
Jacques Huber, in the Boletim do Museu Goeldi, says: "Everything indicates that the avocado, originally indigenous to Mexico, has been cultivated since immemorial times, and that it very early spread through Central America to Peru; then into the Antilles, where its introduction is mentioned by Jacquin; and much later into Brazil." He also remarks that its presence in Peru in pre-Colombian days is indicated by the indigenous name, palta, and the finding of fruits in the graves of the Incas. W. E. Safford, however, says that no vestiges of the avocado are found in the prehistoric graves of the Peruvian coast, nor is it represented in the casts of fruits and vegetables discovered among the terra cotta funeral vases so abundant in the vicinity of Trujillo and Chimbote.
While it is probable that the avocado is of relatively recent introduction into Brazil, and that its presence in Peru in pre-Colombian days may be open to question, the existence of native names for it in many different languages, as well as references by the early voyagers, indicate that at the time of the Discovery it was cultivated, if not indigenous, in extreme northern South America and from there through Central America into Mexico.
The first written account of the avocado, so far as known, is contained in the report of Gonzalo Hernandez de Oviedo (1526), who saw the tree in Colombia, near the Isthmus of Panama.
Pedro de Cieza de Leon, who traveled in tropical America between 1532 and 1550, mentions the avocado as one of the fruits used by the Spaniards who had settled in the Isthmus of Panama, and as being an article of food among the natives of Arma and Cali, in Colombia.
Francisco Cervantes Salazar, one of the earliest chroniclers of Mexico, gives evidence that the avocado was well known in the markets of Mexico City as early as 1554, which was very soon after the Conquest. In a later work, the "Cronica de Nueva Espana," written about the year 1575, he described the fruit. Both in this work and in his earlier one, "Mexico en 1554," he uses the name aguacate.
Sahagun, another early chronicler of Mexico, who wrote some time previous to 1569, briefly describes the Mexican avocado (Persea drymifolia) under the Aztec name, which he spelled aoacatl.
Acosta, writing in 1590, distinguished clearly between the Mexican form and that grown in Peru. He used the Peruvian name palta, in place of the Mexican ahuacatl or any of its corruptions.
Garcilasso de la Vega, writing in 1605, states that the name palta was applied to this fruit by the Incas, who brought the tree from the province of Palta to the valley of Cuzco.
One of the most valuable accounts written in the early days is that of Hernandez, as edited and published by the friar Francisco Ximenez in 1615. Hernandez, who was a physician sent by the King of Spain to study the medicinal plants of Mexico, was evidently familiar only with the Mexican avocado (P. drymifolia); at least, if he had seen the lowland species he makes no mention of it.
Another excellent account was written in 1653 by Bernabe Cobo, a priest who had traveled widely in tropical America. He was the first, so far as known, to mention the Guatemalan avocados. After describing at some length the West Indian race, as it is now called, mentioning in particular the varieties grown in Yucatan and those of certain sections of Peru, he says :
"There are three distinct kinds of paltas. The second kind is a large, round one which is produced in the province of Guatemala, and which does not have as smooth a skin as the first. The third is a small palta which is found in Mexico which in size, color and form resembles a Breva fig; some are round and others elongate, and the skin is as thin and smooth as that of a plum."
Thus it is seen that the three groups of cultivated avocados, recognized at the present day by horticulturists under the names of West Indian, Guatemalan, and Mexican, were distinguished as early as 1653 by Padre Cobo.
Hughes, in his important work "The American Physician" published in 1672, devotes a short chapter to "The Spanish Pear." His reference to its having been planted in Jamaica by the Spaniards is in agreement with other accounts, all of which indicate that the avocado was not cultivated in the West Indies previous to the Discovery.
Sir Hans Sloane, in his catalog of the plants of Jamaica, published in 1696, briefly describes the avocado, cites numerous works in which it is mentioned, and gives as its common name "The avocado or alligator pear-tree." This is the first time that either of these names appears in print, so far as has been discovered.
It is useless to enter into a discussion of all the common names which have appeared in the literature of this fruit. G. N. Collins 1 lists forty-three, but many of them are of limited use, and others are the clumsy efforts of early writers to spell the names they had heard.
The correct name of this fruit in English is at present recognized to be avocado. This is undoubtedly a corruption of the Spanish ahuacate or aguacate, which in turn is an adaptation of the Aztec ahuacatl. The Spaniards, who probably introduced the avocado into Jamaica, brought with it the Mexican name. When Jamaica was taken by the British this name began to undergo a process of corruption, during which such forms as albecata, avigato, and avocato were developed. Frequently the term "pear" was added to these, in conformity with the tendency of the early English colonists to apply familiar names to the fruits which they found in America. We have many other evidences of this tendency, e.g., star-apple, custard-apple, hog-plum, Spanish-plum.
The name avocado or avocado-pear was one of the numerous corruptions which found its way into print, first appearing, so far as known, in 1696 (see above). For some reason it has outlived many other corruptions. Since it is reasonably euphonious, well adapted to the English language, and widely used, it has been officially adopted by the California Avocado Association and is used in the publications of the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as by horticultural societies and horticulturists generally. The name alligator-pear, which seems to have appeared in the same way and about the same time as the term avocado, is considered decidedly objectionable, and a vigorous effort is being made to eliminate it from popular usage. Ahuacate (more commonly but less correctly spelled aguacate) is the name at present used in Mexico, Central America as far south as Costa Rica, and the Spanish-speaking islands of the West Indies, as well as in a few other parts of the world. The original form ahuacatl is still employed in those sections of Mexico where the Aztec or Mexican language has not been replaced by Spanish. The avocado tree is ahuacaquahuitl, a combination of ahuacatl and quahuitl (tree). There were at least two towns in ancient Mexico named Ahuacatlan. This word was expressed in the picture writing of the Aztecs by means of the sign of the avocado tree and the locative suffix -tlan, indicated by teeth set in the trunk of the tree (Fig. 2). The picture thus read ahuacatlan, or "place where the ahuacate abounds." The word ahuacatl has two meanings; one, the fruit of the avocado tree, and the other, testicle.
1 Bull. 77, Bureau of Plant Industry.
The name pahua (from the Aztec pauatl, fruit) is applied in certain parts of Mexico to avocados of the Guatemalan and West Indian races, distinguishing them from the thinner skinned and smaller ahuacates of the Mexican race.
In southern Costa Rica the common name is cura, while in the western part of South America the Peruvian name palta is current. The latter occurs in the Quichua language, and is of unknown derivation.
Fig. 2. Sign of the avocado tree used by the Aztecs.
The names current in various European languages are mainly adaptations or corruptions of the Spanish ahuacate or aguacate. The Portuguese name, used principally in Brazil, is abacate; the French generally call the fruit avocat; while the German name is advogado or avocato.
In all probability the avocado was brought to Florida by the Spaniards, but the first introduction of which a record has been found was in 1833, when Henry Perrine sent trees from Mexico to his grant of land below Miami.
The first successful introduction into California is believed to have been in 1871, when R. B. Ord brought three trees from Mexico and planted them at Santa Barbara. It seems strange that so valuable a fruit should not have been introduced into California by the Franciscan padres, who came from Mexico in the latter part of the eighteenth century and to whom credit is due for the introduction of the orange, the olive, and the vine.
According to Higgins, Hunn, and Holt,1 the avocado was grown in Hawaii as early as 1825, although it did not become common until after 1853.
The avocado is now cultivated to a very limited extent in Algeria, southern Spain, and France, and has even fruited in the open at Rome. Naturally, only the hardiest varieties succeed in the Mediterranean region. In India and other parts of the Orient it has never become common, although it may have been introduced as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. In Reunion and Madagascar it seems to be more abundant.
In Polynesia it has become well established, considerable quantities of the fruit having been shipped from the French island of Tahiti to San Francisco. It is gaining a foothold in northern Australia, and is grown in Natal, Mauritius, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. In the Philippines its culture has been established since the American occupation, many varieties having been introduced by the Bureau of Agriculture.
1 Bull. 25, Hawaii Agr. Exp. Sta.
While it will thus be seen that the avocado has spread from its native home entirely around the globe, it is still most abundant, and of the greatest importance as a food, in tropical America. Throughout Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies seedlings are common in dooryards, thriving with practically no attention and yielding generously of their delicious and nourishing fruits. Rarely in these countries, however, has the avocado been developed as an orchard crop; but this is not surprising in 'view of the fact that orchards of fruit-trees are almost unknown in the tropics.