On May 9, 1985, my cousin Janet came to my house for dinner, and we ate the fruit of an avocado in a salad. After dinner I carefully scrubbed the lustrous skin of the dark avocado seed, removing all the pulpy mush, and poured water in a glass one of my roommates had stolen from the Northwestern food service. I stuck three toothpicks into the skin of the pit and, using these as a brace, balanced the seed in the glass so its top was out of the water and the bottom was immersed. I learned this trick from a crazy acquaintance of mine who felt a personal responsibility to sprout the seed of every fruit she brought into the house. I saw her apartment only once but remember distinctly how thick pits clung to toothpicks in coffee mugs, grapefruit seeds incubated under damp paper towels, and other bits of produce sprouted from the dirt inside Styrofoam cups. I found her devotion to the genetic success of fruit vaguely scary, but her germination techniques seemed to work.
The day after our dinner Janet gave birth to her first child, Sarah Nell. The avocado pit from our salad sprouted, and I planted it in a six-inch-diameter pot, which it outgrew in less than a year. For a couple of years it didn't look like much to the casual observer. But its growth thrilled me--it was the only houseplant I'd ever grown from seed. I reveled in the way the leaves would emerge shiny and slick from the inner wetness of the stalk, unexposed yet to the dust and pollution that gradually dulled the rest of my plants.
I'm certainly not the first person to have grown an avocado at home. I was participating in an ancient horticultural craft. The pit of the avocado is so huge scientists believe it must have evolved specifically to be picked up and carried around by early primates. Most fruits depend on being eaten and on their seeds passing through the body of the consumer--but the animal that could pass an avocado pit would have to be immense. So the avocado has probably been randomly transported by animals with hands for many thousands of years. Excavations in the Tehuacan valley in Puebla, Mexico, reveal that the fruits were being cultivated as long ago as 8000-7000 BC. Older layers of an archaeological dig turn up avocado pits smaller than those found in more recent sediments, indicating that the people were favoring the pits from larger fruit to plant near the caves where they made their homes.
My attachment to the cultivation of this particular avocado is more emotional than practical. Each time I've switched apartments I've anticipated its demise, as I assumed it must be fragile. A lot of my own angst around moving would focus on how the avocado would handle the trauma of the move how it would adjust to new light conditions. The first couple of times I could tenderly carry it in a car myself, but by the time of my last move four years ago, it was so tall it could be transported only in a moving truck. When the movers handled it as casually as they handled the couches, I thought I'd have a heart attack. But it's survived nicely, even thrived.
In a decade the avocado has grown into a rangy, wild-looking plant with foot-long leaves. It's so tall now that its top leaves would brush the 11-foot ceiling of my living room if I didn't snip it back occasionally. It seems to think it resides in a dark forest, where it's in a tree's best interest to grow tall as fast as possible or perish for lack of light. It sends spindly branches shooting wildly toward the ceiling, thinking that if they just reach high enough, they'll find more sunlight.
It's much more gangly than the avocados I've seen growing outdoors in Costa Rica and Antigua. The trees there have stout limbs and leaves large enough to wear in the Garden of Eden. Compared with those robust tropical trees, mine is a skinny imitation.
But when compared with other houseplants, my avocado has a lot to commend it. I have philodendrons, dracaenas, figs, and other traditional plants. And while I'm glad these living things are willing to share my hot, dry apartment, part of me considers them sellouts. They're the same kinds of plants that grace the lobbies of office buildings, and they possess a phony quality. Too green, too indestructible, too corporate. The avocado tree has a nutty, home-grown quality my dignified fig will never achieve.
My avocado is also the closest a plant can come to being expressive. In fact, it almost verges on being emotional. When it needs water it goes into a dramatic wilt that I can spot all the way across the room. Every leaf seems to sag as if this moment were its last. If I walk by it in the morning when it's in this state, no matter how much of a hurry I'm in I can't ignore it any more than I could a whining dog. I have to give it a gallon and a half of water mixed with some Peter's plant food. As a childless and otherwise petless adult, I find the avocado is almost more responsibility than I can handle.
In The Apartment Gardener Florence and Stanley Dworkin talk about "the Avocado Syndrome." They say most avocados have a limited life in city apartments. For reasons that are unclear, the leaves of avocados begin to darken and go papery from the leaf edges inward, and leaf after leaf shrivels and falls. Examinations by horticulturists don't show any bugs or disease, just this brittle form of self-destruction. City water or poor air quality are suspected culprits, but there's no definitive answer to why the syndrome occurs. The Dworkins write, "If your avocado is more than 2 to 3 years old, you're ahead of the game, because most just pack it in long before then....[If] your avocado is a glorious 10-year-old, congratulations: it's one in a thousand." And my avocado has actually flowered a couple of times.
Next week Sarah Nell and my avocado both turn ten. She's not as tall as it is, but her verbal skills are better. Luckily, Janet and I are not competitive about our children. I wish them both happy birthday and long, syndrome-free lives.