It feels like a rain forest under them.
In 1908, Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate, had avocado trees grown from seed and planted by the hundreds on his property near Pasadena, in what became known as the first commercial avocado orchard in California.
Some survived the “Great Freeze” of 1913. A handful have survived human and pest threats to remain standing today.
I was born and raised 15 miles away along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and I’d been to The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Garden many times. It is what Henry Huntington’s acreage became after its days as an orchard and ranch. But only in 2015 did I first visit with interest in the old avocado trees.
Any visitor could miss them. Most of the trees are on the edge of the bus parking area, almost hidden, and none are labelled.
But if you know what you’re looking for, and know what you’re looking at, then you walk inside and feel a sense of awe.
The trunks are burled and wounded and wind to the sky.
Down low some are almost black and near six feet in diameter.
Their weeping, wandering branches often come down to touch the leaf litter on the floor of the orchard only to rise up again.
Scratching around under the trees, you have to go deep before reaching dirt. Many years of leaf mulch has been allowed to build up, and healthy roots finger throughout it.
And the old beauties still flower with full force.
This week I made my most recent visit and spoke with Raquel Folgado, a botanist at The Huntington who works on cryopreservation of avocados. Folgado told me that most of the surviving, oldest avocado trees there are seedlings. In other words, they are not grafted varieties with names you would know. And often, the few that were grafted have rootstock suckers that have been allowed to grow.
Since these old seedling trees and rootstocks have proven themselves so durable in California conditions, one local nursery is now propagating some of them in order to explore their potential as rootstocks to be grafted with avocado varieties that are desirable today — Hass, GEM, etc.
It is conceivable then, that someday you could have an avocado tree in your yard whose roots come from one of these majestic old trees at The Huntington.
Whether or not that happens, be sure to notice them on your next visit. They are among the oldest living avocado trees in California. Who knows how much longer they will survive.
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