Mystery Plant! #763

John Nelson

Posted 2/21/24

By John Nelson
johnbnelson@sc.rr.com

¡Guacamo-le! Guacamo-le! Me gusta el guacamo-le!
                                                                                       –a kids’ song

There are two basic reasons why you should make, and eat, guacamole.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

First, it tastes great. Guacamole, of course, comes from the avocado plant, which is native to warm semitropical forests of the New World, especially of the Caribbean and Mexico. Now avocados have received a lot of bad press, as food sources, since they contain a good deal of fat, which seems to be the bane of modern existence. Hold on, though: it turns out that the fat inside ripe avocados is largely unsaturated or “good” fat. True, there are calories, but for the amount of guacamole you eat, it tends to be a lot healthier than similar foods with lots of calories. (Some people use ripe avocado to spread on toast, in place of butter or margarine. There are actually plenty of ways to prepare it.) Besides, avocado is full of vitamins, especially E and C, as well as plenty of minerals. The flesh is also high in fiber. Avocado oil, available as a cosmetic, is great for your skin, too.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

Now making guacamole can be an act of creative genius. Guacamole purists, such as myself, use only some lime juice, salt and pepper (maybe a little hot sauce) for its preparation, whereas fancy versions frequently contain combinations of chopped onion, tomatoes, jalapeño, coriander…you get the idea. Perhaps the greatest guacamole controversies concern its texture: really smooth, out of a blender, vs. a little lumpy, just mashed with a fork.

By the way, you might be interested to know that the avocado plant is a member of the laurel family (“Lauraceae”). This is the same family that around these parts gives us our native sassafras and red-bay.

The second reason for making your own guacamole is that you get a houseplant out of it. Growing an avocado plant from a seed is rather simple…and it is this seed that poses a bit of a mystery.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

The seed is relatively massive, compared to the size of the fruit…a common trait of many (certainly not all) tropical tree species. The avocado fruit itself consists of three distinctive layers. The outermost layer is the bright, shiny skin (green, or brown, depending on the variety), then a thick, soft interior layer (the wonderful edible part), and finally a thin, brown shell which covers the seed (when you’re finished making the guac, throw the skins in your compost pile). The seed consists of a humble embryo surrounded by two swollen, yellowish or tan “halves”, which are what we call the seed-leaves. These seed-leaves store energy for the tiny embryo during its early growth. Wash off the seed, leaving the shell on, and place it big-end down, in a jelly jar holding a little water. After a couple of weeks, a root will appear at the bottom as the seed slowly sprouts. Once the leaves start to expand, you can pot up the seed, and there you are. A little bit of the tropics, right in your kitchen or on the patio.

[Answer: “Avocado,” Persea americana]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

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