The first time I saw an avocado tree was in the 1970s, at a farm about 40 kilometres from Kodaikanal, owned by some Jesuit priests. Father Peter, who was in charge, showed me a few trees near his nursery that were planted by his European predecessors. He told me there was no market for the fruits, so the farm children played football with them.
Impressed by the large number of big fruits hanging on the trees, I approached a professor at the horticultural research station for information. Turns out, he had started his career at the fruit research station in Kallar, in the Nilgiri Hills, and was familiar with the cultivation of avocados.
From him, I learnt that Kallar Horticulture Farm had a collection of avocado trees from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as well as a ‘Shenbaganur selection’, named after a tree from the neighbourhood of Shenbaganur in Kodaikanal. This brought me closer to home, and I realised that avocado trees have been in the Palani Hills for a long time. (The earliest records are from the 1950s, so it was likely the trees were planted at least a few years before.) Their commercial importance, however, was only realised in the last two decades or so.
In the mid-1970s, the government introduced the Hill Area Development Programme (HADP) and the Western Ghats Development Programme (WGDP), which encouraged horticultural development by supplying plants free of cost. Pepper plants were in great demand in the Palani Hills at that time, and Mr Govindan, who was in charge of plant distribution under these schemes, would insist on giving one avocado plant for every ten pepper plants we took from him.
He would bring plants from Kallar, Burliar, Pechiparai and other government nurseries in Tamil Nadu in a huge truck, and would visit every nook and corner of the hills. If it was the British planters who introduced the odd avocado tree to the Palani Hills, it was the government through the HADP,WGDP and Mr Govindan that brought in the large-scale planting of avocado trees here.
I got my first 100 avocado plants from him and planted them in the higher reaches of our property in Pandrimalai village at an altitude of 1300 metres. Just about the time these trees started yielding, we had some families from Sri Lanka move in as farm help.They knew about this fruit and would mix it with dough to make their rotis soft. Thousands of these hard-working and fun-loving people settled in the Palanis in the 1970s, following the civil unrest in the country, becoming an integral part of the hill society. All of a sudden, everyone was eating soft rotis.
At home, my wife, Anita, would use the fruit to make salads and guacamole, even packing her face with ripe avocado to make herself prettier, but the major part of the harvest would be distributed amongst friends and colleagues in the school where she worked.
It was only after regular overnight buses started plying to Bangalore in the late ’80s that we actually started selling the fruit. Traders would collect the avocados at the farm gate and load them on top of these buses, and they would be picked up by wholesale agents and distributed to retailers. By the mid-’90s, avocados had made their way to Goa, and they caught the attention of foreign tourists who were more familiar with the fruit. Sales picked up, and by the early 2000s, the humble butter fruit was officially popular.
Today, Kodai avocados are found in supermarkets, cafes and fruit sellers’ stalls in all major Indian cities, and everybody wants to grow their own. Here’s what to know before you dig in.
There are three basic types of avocado plants in the world. The West-Indian type performs well in humid, tropical climates at lower latitudes, producing huge, round fruits with a smooth green skin. The Guatemalan type flourishes in high-altitude areas and produces medium-sized pear-shaped fruits that turn purple when ripe. The Mexican type, also grown at high altitudes, is resistant to cold temperatures and has small, thin-skinned fruits that turn purple when ripe. Over the years natural hybridisation has taken place, and we do find trees combining one or more characteristics of each of the three types.
I’ve been propagating avocado plants for a long time now, and for this purpose I collect different types to be raised as mother trees. Among these is a rare yellow avocado, which looks like a mango. Anita picked up a fruit from Jinnah’s fruit shop in Kodai, and now I have quite a few of these trees. The fruit has a thin skin and ripens early.
Avocado trees are fast-growing evergreens, reaching more than 70 feet when left untopped. The leaves are dark green and decompose slowly, just like the leaves of the jackfruit tree. Flowering happens in January and continues until March, starting at lower altitudes and making its way up.
Flowers of some varieties are receptive to pollen in the mornings and shed pollen the following afternoon—these are classified as ‘A’-type trees. The flowers of the ‘B’ type are receptive to pollen in the afternoon and shed pollen the following morning. Hence, every morning A pistils can be fertilised by B pollen, while in the afternoon, B pistils are ready to receive Apollen. For this reason, every orchard should have both A and B trees for effective pollination. However, there are exceptions—one does find the rare self-fertile type. The lone tree at the Kodai police station is an example. Likewise, the Hassan district collector’s camp office has a single tree always loaded with fruits. Strange and wonderful are nature’s ways.
The propagation of plants is chiefly through seed. However, other vegetative propagation methods, such as grafting, cuttings or budding, also work. I once came upon an avocado tree that produced seedless fruits. The owner of the tree refused to give me a cutting, fearing that the tree would die if he did. The last time I passed by, I found both him and the tree missing. Sadly, he had succumbed to Covid-19 and the tree to root rot. If only I had got a cutting to graft, the tree would still be around.
Seeds are planted in nursery bags in October, and seedlings are ready for planting in April. In the case of grafts, rootstocks are raised in October and grafted in April. These grafts are ready for planting in September. To plant an avocado, create a pit of 1m-cube, filled with topsoil and compost. Then place the seedling in the centre and water. Surface planting is the rule—deep planting should be avoided to prevent root rot and fungal diseases.
- Avocado trees perform well in rich, well-drained organic soils with a pH of 5–7.
- An annual average rainfall of 1500mm is a necessity for rain-fed cultivation.
- When planted alongside other crops, the spacing should be 12m x12m. If, however, the area is to be an exclusive avocado field, 6mx6m is sufficient.
- Avocado trees are trained as a single stem up to a height of 1m and then allowed to branch out, as is the case with all other fruit trees. Nutrition requirements are moderate, and hence avocados can be grown using only organic inputs.
Diseases to watch out for
The major disease is root rot from the phytophthora fungus, caused by excessive moisture. In ill-drained soil, the feeder roots and rootlets rot, so the tree doesn’t get the required nutrients, causing the leaves to turn yellow, droop and shed. In disease-prone areas, rot-tolerant and -resistant varieties like Uzi and Duke can be used as rootstock.
A tree can bear anywhere between 100 and 500 fruits per season. Avocado fruits don’t soften on the tree, which is a big advantage to farmers. Today, Kodai avocados are in great demand all over the country, and the farm gate price is Rs 50 per kg at the beginning of the season and over Rs 100 towards the end.
Avocado cultivation in these hills is slowly coming to the next level with Mexican restaurant chains and the cosmetic industry approaching us to grow specific cultivars. The Hass variety seems to be the most wanted and is currently being imported and sold at Rs 200 per fruit. Hass plants have been imported from Israel, but the costs are way beyond us.
Scientific research on avocados in India is still in its early stages. Once we have disease-free planting material and when organised marketing sets in, the average avocado grower is bound to thrive.