A few years back it seemed we were on the brink of losing a member of the family. But with good food, plenty of water and Florida sunshine, that loved one is now robust and thriving.
It may seem strange to think of the 52-year-old avocado tree at my mother-in-law's Largo home as a member of the family. But the tree, which barely survived the 2010 cold snap, planted its roots when my husband's family came to Florida, and its offspring have followed ours.
Back in 1959, my in-laws, Betty and Jack Diederich, built a house in Largo. They'd arrived from Ottawa, Ill., with four children: Jay (now my husband), Janet, Julie and Tom. A neighboring couple named Mr. and Mrs. Kahler brought over a seedling they'd started from an avocado pit. They said not to expect fruit for maybe eight years.
The Kahlers probably were right. The University of Florida Extension Service says some avocado trees started from seeds may not produce for a decade or more.
The seedling was planted and about the only attention it got, according to Betty, was from 6-year-old Julie watering it with a garden hose.
The kids grew up, married and started families. Betty and Jack stayed at the Largo house. Soon families with grandchildren returned for holidays and the children who'd grown up there began to appreciate the unusually rich-tasting avocados.
How could they have missed this all those years?
"I don't remember anything about that tree as I was growing up," says Janet Herndon, now an Asheville, N.C., resident. She left for college in 1967 so maybe the tree wasn't yet bearing.
"I don't have any early memories either," says Julie Nolan, who now lives in Dunedin, adding that once recently she stuffed avocado halves with tuna salad for a co-workers' luncheon.
Janet and Julie now cherish the avocados. When their brother Tom and his wife, Lisa, come from Colorado for a fall visit, there'll probably be a big bowl of guacamole.
Jay's best memory of the tree is from 10 years ago.
"Dad was in failing health. He sat in a chair and watched us gather boxes of avocados. The tree was loaded that year. Dad enjoyed that day. He died a week later," Jay said.
The tree is maybe 25 feet tall with sprawling branches. Family members savor the smooth buttery taste of these particular avocados, gather them in boxes to take home and share with friends.
Often there have been so many avocados Betty would take them wherever she went, including to her hairdresser.
"Pretty soon people would see me coming and say enough already!" said Betty, laughing.
In 2002, the tree seemed to be setting a record. Hundreds of avocados hung from the branches. Granddaughter Krista Diederich (now Schlossmacher) filled a box and took them home to Orange County. At that time, I was reading specialist at Longleaf Elementary School and took several boxes to leave in the school's staff room for others to enjoy.
There still were more avocados. Guacamole's good, but after a while even that runs its course! I looked for other recipes and found Avocado Nut Bread and even an Avocado Pie, similar to Key Lime.
Knowing the tree wouldn't live forever, I tried sprouting seedlings from pits. No success, until I realized I clearly didn't know which end was up. I'd been attempting to start them upside down. Correcting my error, the pits sprouted quickly and we now have a new tree about 7 feet tall and two daughters each have one, all too young yet to produce fruit. In the meantime, a Tampa friend started a couple of pits and has trees growing in her yard, so the old tree not only has given us plenty of fruit but also many offspring.
Avocado season has arrived and our family is again focused on the old tree, now hanging heavy with hundreds of avocados. We're not sure how they'll all be used, but we're glad the old tree has come through once again in grand style.