Abundance of avocados leads Gulfport woman into business

“They just grow on their own. Florida rain and Florida sunshine — that’s it,” says Dimitra Pastras of the avocados that grow on the productive tree she inherited from her father.
“They just grow on their own. Florida rain and Florida sunshine — that’s it,” says Dimitra Pastras of the avocados that grow on the productive tree she inherited from her father.
Published June 7, 2017

GULFPORT — She ate as many as she could. She gave them to family and friends. She even gave them to the homeless.

But no matter what she did, Dimitra Pastras still had too many avocados. Way too many.

"Even when I was giving them away, I was throwing away bushels of them," she said.

Determined to find a use for all that fruit, Pastras learned how to convert avocados into body care products and avocado pits into jewelry.

Now, her Avocado Tree Project has a website and a booth at Gulfport's Tuesday Fresh Market, where she hawks her wares and donates a dollar from every sale to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"It's really not a business," she said. "It's a project. I do it, I meet people and I give back."

Pastras, 60, moved to Gulfport in 2008 to take care of her elderly parents. When they died, she said, she decided to stay in Gulfport, where she inherited her parents' house and a fertile, 25-foot-tall avocado tree.

Her father, Harry Pastras, planted the tree in the fall of 2001. He emigrated from Katakolon, Greece, in 1988 to Michigan, where he owned a garden shop.

"When my dad was in Michigan, he was florist and he actually had a garden center," said Pastras. "He was very big into botany and he was the same way in Greece."

He grafted the tree from a Florida avocado and a Hass avocado.

"A Florida avocado is a very large fruit," she said. "They're very large and watery. The Hass are smaller and very meaty with nutrition that you want from an avocado. When you graft them together, you get a bigger Hass avocado with a lot of oils in it."

Pastras said she planted a sister tree a few years ago. Now the two trees produce 200 to 300 pounds of avocados a year. But that isn't because Pastras has a green thumb.

"Believe me, I'm not proficient in growing avocados," she said. "I don't water them. I don't fertilize them. I don't put insecticides on them. They just grow on their own. Florida rain and Florida sunshine — that's it."

When she decided to try to turn her abundant avocado crop into other products, she ran into a problem.

"They come in all at once — usually in September," Pastras said. "After that, they're gone and they don't come back for another year."

The internet wasn't much help, she said, so she spent a year of trial and error before she found a way to keep the avocados fresh.

"I started teaching myself how to process (avocados)," she said. "And I had plenty of avocados to be able to do it with."

Even when Pastras was using the meat of the avocado for body care products, she felt that she was wasting too much of the fruit. So she began incorporating the pits into her projects, too.

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To make pendants, she carves each pit into a certain design. Next, she puts the carved pit through a drying process for seven to 14 days. Pastras said that she couldn't duplicate the exact style of a piece if she wanted to because the pit takes on its own character once it's dry.

"They're as unique as anyone who buys them," she said.

In November, Pastras, whose jewelry ranges from $15 to $60, became a vendor at the Tuesday Fresh Market, an open-air bazaar on Beach Boulevard near the waterfront. The response was so good she decided to keep making her wares.

Her father, who died of cancer in 2009, was a generous man who "always took care of young people," she said. "He wanted to give back, and I wanted to give back, too."

She said she donates $1 from every sale to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital to honor her father's memory and others who are battling cancer. So far, she's raised more than $125.

"I know it's not a lot, but every little bit helps," she said.

Ryan Callihan is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.