Wilson Popenoe Avocado
Unlike most oily commercial varieties, the Popenoe avocado is lighter, enormous (up to a pound each), has a shiny green skin and grows well in humid sub-tropical and tropical areas. The football shaped Popenoe is described as firmer, creamier and juicier than the Haas avocado.
The Popenoe avocado was imported from Tela, Honduras on February 25, 1929 by Wilson Popenoe and from the Lancetilla Botanical Garden and Research Center by H. F. Winters on December 19, 1966 to Miami, Florida. No one has done more to popularize the avocado in the United States than Wilson Popenoe. As a young man, Popenoe traveled the Americas importing a broad diversity of tropical fruits into the United States and aiding in agricultural development throughout Central America. Wilson Popenoe imported several of his “favorite” avocados to Florida within his long career.
Avocados have risen in popularity over the last decade but production is globally strongly dominated by the Hass avocado. Hass is best adapted to Mediterranean climates but has managed to displace sub-tropical and tropical avocado in the Americas.
Avocados are extraordinarily diverse. Their diversity can be attributed to their long history as an important food and trade item among early American peoples and also the different climactic conditions under which people selected for desirable fruit qualities. The first archeological evidence of avocado use dates back to the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla between 8,000-7,000 B.C.
Avocado diversity is now threatened not only by global market demands for Hass but also by the rapid spread of non-native, invasive pathogens for which the avocado has no “natural” resistance. These pathogens, namely Phytophthora cinnamomi, cause a serious root rot, decreasing yields globally and even leading to the loss of entire avocado germplasm banks. While massive efforts to protect commercial operations have been executed, germplasm banks and home gardens throughout the Americas, where the majority of avocado diversity are housed, have not been as well protected.
Thanks in great part to the efforts of Wilson Popenoe, and the famous botanist and his sometime employer, David Fairchild, South Florida became a melting pot for tropical and sub-tropical avocados in the early and mid 1900’s.
Humid tropical and sub-tropical avocados are broadly called West Indian Avocados. The protection of West Indian avocado germplasm is essential to sustaining this valuable high calorie and nutritious food for people in sub-tropical and tropical areas.
Only three Popenoe avocado trees are thought to exist in Miami and Honduras today. Two are in Miami, one in the USDA collection and the other in the private Krome Family collection. The tree in the USDA collection has been infected with the avocado sunblotch viroid (which causes a serious disease in avocados) and, consequently, it cannot be distributed. The third may be at the Lancetilla Botanical Garden and Research Center, an agricultural research center in Honduras founded by Wilson Popenoe. There is also one report of a grove in Venezuela that produces Popenoe avocados. The Popenoe avocado symbolizes the unique agricultural history of Miami and the extraordinary diversity of the avocado.
There are no commercial operations in Florida. Clonal reproduction of this cultivar has been very limited and distribution by seed has historically been more common for non-commercial avocados in Florida and Honduras. Avocados phenotypically similar to the ‘Popenoe’ can be found in Miami yards and are sold by street vendors who typically pay small prices to collect fruit from these trees. Such fruits are popular among Central and South American immigrants but much of the public has been unexposed to West Indian avocados.
Sustainable production of the Popenoe avocado would require clonal reproduction of the few existing trees. Specifically, budwood would be collected and grafted to nurse seedlings or directly to mature trees in the field. Grafted seedlings typically require 5 years to become productive. Budwood grafted to mature trees within irrigated groves can take as little as 2 years to produce fruit.
The Slow Food Miami convivium is taking an active role in preventing the extinction of the Popenoe avocado by supporting the sustainable production of Popenoe’ avocados in Florida. Their convivium hosted a dinner with an avocado-inspired menu with local ingredients to raise awareness about this rare fruit among Slow Food members and the media. The convivium plans to import healthy Wilson Poponoe budwood from Venezuela to South Florida, raise it on local organic farms by cooperating producers, under the supervision of Dr. Helen Violi and Slow Food, and hopefully guarantee a viable future for this forgotten avocado.
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