The California avocado industry, and therefore the world avocado industry — as California growers started it all — was built primarily on the quality of one variety: Fuerte. And yet, despite its fame and importance, one encounters misinformation about how the Fuerte got its name. Over and over, the story is told that Fuerte avocado trees (then just referred to as number 15) survived the freeze of 1913 whereas other varieties got torched, and so they were named Fuerte, meaning “strong.” Wrong.
Let’s get this straightened out by going to the sources. In the early days, everything important was recorded in the California Avocado Society yearbooks, at first called the California Avocado Association annual reports. Lucky for us, much of the content of these yearbooks and reports are available at Avocadosource.com.
In the C.A.S. Yearbook for 1948, there’s an interesting article about Carl Schmidt, the “discoverer” of the Fuerte. According to the article, Schmidt had been working for Wilson and his father Fred (or F.O.) Popenoe, who owned the West India Garden nurseries in Altadena, California (near Pasadena). Popenoe employed Schmidt to find promising avocado varieties in Mexico. In 1911, Schmidt found one on the property of Alejandro Le Blanc in Atlixco which he cut budwood (small branches to be used in grafting in order to propagate new trees) from and sent back to California via Wells Fargo Express. Atlixco is located in the state of Puebla at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The budwood from Le Blanc’s tree was labelled number 15.
At the nursery in Altadena, the budwood from number 15 grew more vigorously than Schmidt’s other introductions. In an article from 1941 titled “Origin of the name ‘Fuerte’,” Wilson Popenoe recounts that this number 15 “was so much more vigorous than the rest that it attracted our attention before the buds were a foot in height. One day when father and I were going over the Schmidt introductions, we commented particularly upon the high percentage of buds of this variety which had “taken,” and the strong, vigorous start they were making. Father remarked, “That’s the strongest grower of the lot. We’ll call it ‘Fuerte.’ ”
The three-year old Fuerte tree in my yard shown in the photo above attests to the vigor of the variety. So that’s how Fuerte got its name, but then . . .
A few years after Schmidt had sent the number 15 budwood up from Mexico in 1911, and then the budwood was used to propagate new trees at West India Gardens, and then Fred Popenoe gave the strongly growing number 15 trees the name ‘Fuerte’ — in 1913 it now was — there was an exceptionally hard freeze in Southern California. Many of the varieties at West India Gardens in Altadena were damaged, but the Fuerte trees came through comparatively well. This was when the variety showed its tolerance to cold. This pleased the Popenoes. This was not, however, when the variety got its name. According to Wilson Popenoe himself, Fuerte was called Fuerte before the 1913 freeze ever hit.
From whence the myth?
Where did the myth arise that Fuerte got its name after it proved hardy in the 1913 freeze? It seems it hadn’t appeared as early as 1915. In the California Avocado Association’s annual report for 1915, Fred Popenoe wrote an article titled “Varieties of the avocado,” and in it the Fuerte is listed and described as follows:
“FUERTE (Syn. El Fuerte, West India Gardens No. 15) Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico, 1911. Form broadly oval, length 4 inches, weight about 14 ounces. Surface roughened, green in color, the skin thick. Flesh yellow, smooth and buttery, of rich flavor. The seed is small, tight in the cavity. The tree propagates readily and has proved to be an unusually strong, erect grower. Its season at Atlixco is said to be October and November.”
In other words, Fred Popenoe wrote essentially the same in 1915 as his son Wilson told the story in retrospect in 1941. That is, the Fuerte was an exceptionally strong grower, hence the Spanish name meaning “strong.” Nothing about cold hardiness or the 1913 freeze are mentioned.
Nothing new appears in the 1916 annual report, except that in an article written by J.T. Whedon, who planted the first orchard of Fuerte trees in 1914 (he got his trees from West India Gardens), the Fuerte is noted as one of his “best growing and spreading trees.” Whedon says nothing about the Fuerte’s cold tolerance.
At last, it is in the Association’s 1917 annual report that we first find the cold hardiness of Fuerte even mentioned. But it is only in the context of the Fuerte being one of the hardier avocado varieties that also taste and grow well. Fuerte “can withstand more cold than any other desirable variety.”
Fast forward to 1946 and we find the article “The Fuerte Avocado” by Marvin Rounds, where he says, “The name Fuerte, meaning hardy, was later given to the variety because the budlings resisted to a certain extent the low temperatures of the 1913 freeze.” That’s the first written version of the myth I can find. Note that it’s five years after Wilson Popenoe’s article “Origin of the name ‘Fuerte’.” Might this article by Rounds be the “Origin of the myth of the reason for the name ‘Fuerte’?”