National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Avocado and Papaya, Gifts of the Aztecs TWO native American fruits, the avocado and the papaya, have become important in tropical areas around the world. One of these, the papaya, is little known in the United States. The avocado, on the other hand, is widely shipped from the limited areas where it can be grown, in California and Florida, to markets all over the country. In this country, avocados are used mainly in salads or desserts. In parts of Mexico and Central America, however, they are often used as a meat substitute; an avocado is rich in protein and contains up to 30 percent of its weight in oil. A Native American The avocado, grown long before the dis covery of the New World, is native to Mexico and Central America. Two species are recog nized by botanists and horticulturists, and both are now important in commerce. The Guatemalan avocados, Persea americana, are relatively thick-skinned and ripen their fruit mainly in winter and spring. A subgroup of this species, called the West Indian race, ripens the fruit mainly in summer and fall. The Mexican race, P. drymifolia, has much thinner skinned fruit and is slightly hardier to cold than the Guatemalan and West Indian races. All of the races cross freely, and some of our most valuable avocado varieties appear to be hybrids. Enough varie ties have been developed to make mature fruits available practically every month in the year. The avocado was being extensively used by the Aztecs and other natives when the Spaniards arrived. It is today an important part of the native diet where it grows. Tor tillas, avocado, and coffee are considered an excellent meal by natives of Mexico and Central America. Aztec picture writings had a sign for the avocado. The early Spanish spelling of the Aztec name was ahuacatl, but many modifica tions developed. The English name, avocado, is derived from the Spanish modifications of the original Aztec. Before the Europeans came to these shores, avocados were growing in much of Mexico and in northern South America, possibly as far south as Peru. They were probably not present in the West Indian islands. European visitors recognized the value of the rich, oily, nutritious fruit. Even so, it was slow to be transported to other tropical coun tries, perhaps because it does not propagate very readily. It was growing in the Hawaiian Islands as early as 1825, and has since been widely dis tributed in Africa and Polynesia. There are now plantings in most parts of the world where the climate is suitable. The avocado apparently was not estab lished in the United States until the last century. The first trees of definite record in Florida were brought from Mexico in 1833 by Henry Perrine, a well-known horticulturist, and planted south of Miami. Successful intro duction into California was even later. The first recorded planting there was in Santa Barbara in 1871, also with Mexican trees. The papaya, Carica papaya, or melon tree, is a unique contribution from the Americas. This very large, melonlike fruit is still unfamiliar to most Americans, though it spread quickly to other tropical countries after Columbus reached these shores. Before 1600, it had reached the Philippines, India, and probably Africa. Its showy, high-quality fruit and its ease of transport and propaga tion by seed account for its rapid spread-so rapid that for a time there was question as to whether its original home was America or Africa or India. There still is uncertainty as to whether its native habitat is the West Indian islands or the mainland of Mexico, or both. Its Amer ican origin, however, is well established. The papaya grows on a giant herbaceous plant, rather than on a tree. The fruits, which range from a pound up to 20 pounds in size, will mature in about 18 months from the time the seed is planted. In frost free countries plants will produce for several years. Papaya Juice Makes Tough Meat Tender The papaya also produces an enzyme, papain, which has become an article of com merce. It resembles pepsin in its digestive action and is used for the treatment of certain digestive ailments. Its major use is as a tenderizer of meats. The principal commercial source of papain is India. Outside America, the papaya ranks as one of the most important tropical fruits. It is used extensively in Hawaii and is of major importance in tropical Asia and Africa. It is grown only in limited quantities in the United States, almost entirely in southern Florida. The heavy, very tender fruit is difficult to ship. The avocado, too, is so tender to frost that areas of production in the continental United States are very limited. Most of our avocados are grown in sections of California south of Los Angeles and near the coast. A second important area is south Florida. Neither avocados nor papayas will tolerate tempera tures more than a degree or two below freez ing. Avocados can be shipped readily, how ever, and many an American who never saw an avocado tree is appreciative of this gift from the Aztecs.