Avocado History

From Aztec Aphrodisiac to American Obsession


The Spruce / Peggy Trowbridge Filippone

The cultivated avocado (Persea americana) originated on the culinary scene in Mesoamerica in about 500 B.C. Spanish conquistadors learned about the creamy fruit from the Aztec in the 16th century, taking note of its local status as both a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. They eventually took them to Europe. The avocado gets its name from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, which means "testicle." To the Aztec, avocados, which grow in pairs, were symbols of love and fertility.

The Alligator Pear

A 1696 catalog of Jamaican plants mentioned the avocado, referring to it as an alligator pear tree. Henry Perrine, a horticulturist, planted avocados in Florida in 1833. But they did not become a cash crop until much later.

In the early 1900s, California farmers started growing alligator pears commercially. But even though the common English name matched the pebbly green skin of this unusually unsweet fruit, the newly formed growers association did not believe they could successfully market it as such. They turned back to the native moniker, ahuacatl, which had become aguacate to Spanish speakers and avocado in English.

how to select an avocado
Illustration: Kelly Miller. © The Spruce, 2019

Slow Growth to Widespread Appeal

Outside of California, Florida, and Hawaii, the three states with commercial growers, the avocado caught on slowly. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that consumers across the country began to seek out the unusual savory fruit, which is actually a single-seeded berry. Lessening import restrictions against Mexican-grown avocados in the 1990s helped fuel demand by providing enough supply to stock grocery stores outside of California.

Widespread appreciation for the avocado really arrived with the 21st century, though. According to the Hass Avocado Board, in 15 years the number of avocados sold in the United States quadrupled, to more than 2 billion pounds in 2015. Super Bowl Sunday 2016 saw Americans consume nearly 140 million pounds of avocado in just one day, mostly in the form of guacamole.

The Case for Avocados

The thick-skinned Hass avocados, grown in Southern California and imported from Mexico, are the most common in U.S. markets, followed by Fuerte, a thinner-skinned, lighter-colored version. High in potassium and the so-called “good fat,” avocados have become the darling of nutritionists. They may even be a better standard-bearer than the apple for the wisdom of one a day to keep the doctor away. Free of cholesterol themselves, they help lower bad cholesterol and contain 20 essential vitamins and minerals, all for just 50 calories per serving. They also contain a notable amount of protein, unusual for a fruit.

Beyond the obvious use in guacamole and sliced on salads or sandwiches, avocados can stand in for mayonnaise, replace butter in baked goods and even become the creamy base for ice cream or smoothies. You can grill them, stuff them, batter and fry them or turn them into cake frosting. Or simply slice them onto a plate, drizzle some fresh lime juice on top and add a scattering of dried chili flakes.

More About Avocados

Intrigued by the versatility of this savory fruit? Check out these other avocado resources to learn more: