It has been around for thousands of years and has been used for multiple purposes, from adding flavor to meals to treating gum disease or dysentery. However, many people wonder, what is an avocado? In spite of its agreeable, neutral flavor and its creamy texture, some would be surprised to know that avocado is actually a fruit.
About the Avocado Family
Avocado is a member of the Lauraceae botanical group, also known as the laurel family, and it is also part of the Persea genus, among nearly 70 other species that are native to the tropical areas of the Americas and the Caribbean. For this reason, it has been botanically named Persea americana.
Typically, the avocado fruit has a significantly larger size, with a greater portion of edible flesh in comparison to its wild relatives. However, since it is considered the most economically valuable Persea species, a great number of cultivars have been developed along the years. As such, it is easy nowadays to find avocados of different sizes, shapes, and nutritional contents.
The popular pear-shaped avocado fruit averages around 5 - 15 inches (13 - 38 cm) in length and up to six inches (15 cm) in width. The skin of an avocado is usually of a leathery dark green to dark purple-green color. Inside, the yellow-green flesh surrounds a single large seed.
An important thing to know is that there are three main types of avocado based on location: West Indian, Mexican, and Guatemalan. The growing conditions vary for each type; however, avocado is mainly cultivated in forests and lower slopes of rainforests in rich, well-drained soils.
The scientific name for each type still starts with P. americana, and it is followed by a unique variety name. The West Indian avocado is also referred to as P. americana var. americana, the Guatemalan avocado is botanically known as P. americana var. guatemalensis, and the Mexican avocado is called P. americana var. drymifolia.
Persea americana has been given a number of common names based on its appearance and texture. Its most popular name, 'avocado,' comes from the Mexican language Nahuatl and is based on the word ahuacatl, which means 'testicle.' This translation has been given because of the fruit's shape and the concept that avocado is a fertility food. The fruit is also known as alligator pear, midshipman's butter, vegetable butter, or butter pear.
The Evolution of Avocados
Avocados have been enjoyed by humans for at least 9,000 years. However, the earliest records of their purposeful cultivation can be traced back to pre-Columbian times in Meso-America, where Mayan and Aztec representations of avocado in art works have been found as a testimony of how much these ancient civilizations valued the fruit. Over the time, different regions have developed their own unique culinary and medicinal uses for avocado.
Avocados culinary uses
Avocados can be served up in salads, hot meals, desserts, or simply sliced open and enjoyed plain. Indians in tropical America sprinkle salt over avocado halves and eat them with tortillas and coffee. In North America, avocados are a very high in-demand salad vegetable, eaten in halves, glazed in seasonings or a variety of dressings, or even stuffed with seafood. The flesh of the avocado is often diced up and added to a salad or sandwich.
Avocado is a key ingredient in the widely popular dip, Mexican guacamole, which is a blend of the avocado flesh, lemon or lime juice, onion juice, minced garlic, chili powder or Tabasco sauce, and salt and pepper.
Avocado flesh shouldn't be cooked as cooking causes it to develop a bitter taste; however, it can be incorporated into hot meals. In Guatemala, avocado is often served in a separate dish with hot entrees and added to the dish right before eating. It is also common to add avocado to soups, chilies, or omelets.
Some places prefer to use avocado as a true fruit rather than a vegetable and add it to desserts. In Brazil, avocado is mashed up in sherbet, ice cream, or milk shakes. In Hawaii, the avocado is sweetened with sugar and added to a fruit salad with pineapple, orange, grapefruit, or banana. A very unique dessert in Java combines avocado with strong black coffee and a sweetener.
Avocados medicinal uses
Avocados are rich in vitamins and nutrients that allow them to have certain medicinal values. The skin of avocado fruit is considered an antibiotic and is sometimes used as a remedy for dysentery.
Avocado leaves also have antibiotic properties and are used in a number of ways.1,2 The leaves can be chewed to help ease gum disease or applied on wounds as a bandage. A decoction of the leaves can treat diarrhea, sore throat, or hemorrhage. Hypertensive effects have also been found in an extract of the leaves.3
The seed of avocado is also beneficial for treating diarrhea and dysentery when cut into pieces, roasted, and minced. A powdered version of the seed is believed to cure dandruff.
Over thousands of years, the popularity of the avocado fruit has steadily increased due to its versatility as a culinary ingredient and its ability to help treat minor health conditions.
- Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Avocados
- Medicinal Plants of Asia and the Pacific, p. 15
- Purdue University, Center for New Crops & Plant Products, Avocado Persea americana
- The Avocado: Botany, Production, and Uses
- Wild Crop Relatives: Genomic and Breeding Resources: Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, p. 173
- World Agroforestry Centre, Agroforestry Database, Persea americana
- Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Persea americana (avocado)
- Agroforestry systems. (2020). Antioxidant and antimicrobial capacity of three agroindustrial residues as animal feeds. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from: https://pubag.nal.usda.gov/catalog/7050689
- BioMed Research International. (2013). Antibacterial Activity of Defensin PaDef from Avocado Fruit (Persea americana var. drymifolia) Expressed in Endothelial Cells against Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3844270/
- Cardiovascular Journal of Africa. (2007). Cardiovascular effects of Persea americana Mill (Lauraceae) (avocado) aqueous leaf extract in experimental animals. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17497042/