Baby Duke Finds a Home

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Wife That is Venus and The Duke Avocado
There are two things in the photo to the right that are very special to me. The first -- and most obvious I might add -- is the wife that is Venus. She's got a smile on her face. Why? Because I told her to smile! No, not really. That potted plant is behind the smile that the wife is wearing. Can you guess what it might be?

If you guessed an avocado tree -- points to you dear friend. By now you're probably wondering, "big deal, it's a fricken avocado tree!" Yes -- that may be true -- but it's not just any avocado tree. My friends -- this is the legendary Duke Avocado. What makes the Duke so special? You can't buy it at any store. No nursery carries the Duke. If you call around looking for a Duke, you're likely to be greeted with silence or even a blank stare. No store -- no supplier -- carries the Duke Avocado anymore.

Duke Avocado Tree
Why? Good question. I still don't quite understand why it was abandoned as a backyard tree. This isn't your dad's avocado tree -- this is what dear old grandaddy planted in his backyard. There is only one way to obtain a true, grafted, Duke. If you want a true Duke Avocado tree, you have to "make one."

Which is just what Bill Bird did -- with a little help from his friends at the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG). The tree that Venus is holding and again pictured to your left is probably the first true, grafted Duke tree that has been grown in decades. The scion attached to the root stock was taken from the spot where the Duke Avocado was born in 1912: Butte County.

This tree just isn't rare. The Duke Avocado is incredibly rare. And it has one incredible story behind it.

Oroville: Home of the Duke Avocado
This has been a rather long journey which I documented here last year and again here about six months later. The baby Duke Avocado tree now growing in the Bird Back 40 is the result of a quest to find an avocado variety that will laugh at freezing conditions, grow in terrible soils that have doomed other avocado varieties and, of course, produce boatloads of avocados.

The Duke is the result of a quest that started when I earned a none-too-stellar reputation of killing avocado trees. It didn't matter what variety I planted. It didn't matter where I planted it. Because, with each tree I planted, death arrived at its doorstep less than six months later. The tried-and-true standard nursery varieties of Bacon, Mexicola, Mexicola Grande, Zutano and Pinkerton all had a date with the Grim Reaper. They bit the dust, bought the farm, took a dirt nap, fed the worms, etc.

Duke Avocado Planted in Raised Bed
Avocado tree suppliers made bank on my misfortune. Because when one tree kicked the bucket, Bill Bird trotted out and dutifully shelled out another fifty bucks on another, supposed, "cold weather tolerant" avocado tree. Why keep kicking myself like this? Because the wife that is Venus DEMANDED an avocado tree for her backyard. That's why. Isn't that enough?

Since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I knew I had to try something different (I'm not that whacko, people. Not yet anyway). The links above detail the quest I started last year to find an avocado variety that could withstand the micro-climate cold freezes that cover the Bird Back 40 every December.

Duke Avocado Tree-Oroville Train Depot
The discovery of the Duke would then lead to the quest for a Duke -- the steps I took to find a supplier -- and finally -- the discovery of ancient Duke avocado trees planted in an old Introductory Garden located at the site of the old Oroville train Depot once served by the Western Pacific Rail Road. It was there where I would procure the scions from an ancient heirloom tree brought about by a crazy old man called "Benedict," who started planting avocado seed in Bangor in 1912.

Mr. Benedict may have failed in his quest to build an avocado nursery in one of the coldest interior regions of California. But his lasting success is the creation of the Duke line. The last major investigative report on the Duke, printed in the 1963 California Avocado Yearbook, not only failed to find the source of the avocado seed that Benedict was importing into Butte County, trees similar to the Duke couldn't be located anywhere.

Duke Avocado Leaves Are Shiny Yellow-Green
The Duke, like many avocado varieties that once graced California fields, was replaced by another variety at some point and then forgotten. There are a myriad of reasons as to why it was abandoned. Perhaps better tasting varieties were developed? The thin skins of the Duke fruit quickly fell out of favor with commercial growers and shippers. The fruit bruised far too easily during transport from farm to market. What happened to the Duke isn't unique. Many other avocado varieties have been tried, and then forgotten.

What makes the Duke unique, however, is this tree's ability to withstand frosty cold conditions. The Duke has survived major freezes that severely damaged other varieties planted nearby. I have witnessed the Duke's ability to laugh off a sustained frost with my own eyes. I have seen healthy Duke scions protruding from half dead root stock that nearly perished after a cold December freeze.


The quest for my own Duke Avocado tree didn't end with the discovery of original Duke trees in Oroville. That was just the start of our avocado adventure. One does not "plant" Duke Avocado seed to obtain a true Duke tree. The only way to get a true Duke is through the process of grafting.

Duke Avocado Tree-Bird Back 40
Since my grafting skills are still suspect (ie: BAD), I farmed out Duke cuttings (scions) taken from original Duke trees in Oroville to growers connected to the CRFG. Avocado root stock was procured from other CRFG suppliers in Northern and Central California. Two growers with marvelous grafting abilities volunteered to take on the project of creating new Duke trees.

Unfortunately, for reasons that I still don't understand, the Sacramento grower who volunteered for this effort allowed all of his Duke trees and his avocado root stock to die this summer. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong. I didn't get much of an explanation from him, other than that the three grafted Duke trees in his possession, and additional root stock, had died.

Heritage Duke Tree-Oroville, CA
Ever get socked in the stomach? That's kind of how I felt. I had visited this grower last May and witnessed the progress he had made with his grafting efforts. I saw, with my own eyes, healthy Duke shoots protruding from root stock that had nearly perished during the previous winter. Since the root stock was suspect, I agreed with his request. He wanted to break the half-dead root stock into pieces and bury it under the soil line, leaving only the healthy Duke shoot above.

He was the expert at this, right? So I agreed. And, after hearing that all of his trees had died from lack of care this summer, I began to regret this decision. A thought kept running through my mind: "Why didn't I grab one of those trees when I had a chance?"

Hindsight is 20-20.


A Waterford Backyard
If you have ever taken the opportunity to visit the downtown area of Waterford, "lovely" is probably the last adjective that comes to mind. Waterford is a small community that most people on Highway 120 zoom right through -- usually on their way to a nearby reservoir or even Yosemite National Park. It's not a place where one would normally stop, unless you need gas.

But there is a spot in downtown Waterford that is, indeed, quite lovely. It's the backyard of CRFG grower David Johnson. This is the second time I've had the pleasure of walking into David's backyard. It is a tribute to not just avocado trees of different shapes and sizes, but rare and unique citrus varieties and other fruit that isn't often found in the normal California backyard. Thanks to a canopy of shade from fruit and citrus trees planted long ago, David makes magic happen on the ground below.

Backyard of CRFG Member David Johnson
I like to think of it as a science lab for growing the rare and unique. Small trails lead from one discovery to another. And there's usually a friendly cat that steps out along the way, demanding a scratch or to be held and petted. On this particular day I had come to adopt an avocado tree. I nearly adopted another cat (something I do not need).

David is the other grower who had been enlisted with Duke scions taken from the Oroville trees. I hadn't given David nearly as much as I'd delivered to the Sacramento grower, but it was enough to create two or three grafted Duke trees. As I gazed upon those light green leaves tinged with yellow streaks, a signature of the Duke tree, I knew that my work on this venture had not been in vain.

Avocado Tree Nursery-Waterford
Unlike my Sacramento grower, David did not splice scions into existing root stock. He instead sliced into root stock at the base of the tree -- removing all previous growth -- and inserted a Duke scion. I had given him enough scion material last year for six trees. If the graft failed to take, it meant the entire root stock was also a goner. But David experienced a fifty percent success rate. Six grafts with six different root stocks resulted in three healthy trees.

Before you get too excited -- all three have found a home. But I did more than just drive to Waterford to pick up Venus' Duke Avocado tree. David also received a delivery of an ice chest packed with scion material taken from the Oroville trees that I had visited earlier that morning. David is now creating new Duke trees as this post is written.

Avocado Cat Says "Adopt Me!"
Yes -- you're right -- it was a long drive. From Sacramento north to Oroville -- then back south again to Sacramento and even further south to Waterford. Thanks to Google Maps, I was able to follow a lot of the original route that had been set aside for the never constructed Highway 65. These are old rural roads now that are rarely traveled, but offer a glimpse of the San Joaquin Valley one doesn't get from Highway 99 or Interstate 5.

Highway 65 was originally designed to take pressure off Highway 99. Like many highway building projects, it was shelved under the mistaken belief of: "If we don't built it, they (people) won't come." Lots of highway projects were abandoned in the 1970's under this mistaken belief. The people still came. Our population has nearly doubled since 1970.

But that's enough of politics. Back to avocados -- specifically -- The Duke Avocado.


Emerging Duke Leaf Sets
Venus' Duke Avocado tree has found a home in a side yard of the Bird Back 40. Planted in a raised bed and sheltered from the freezing winds that blow in from the north during winter, I'm hopeful this avocado tree will meet with a better fate than most previous avocado tree efforts. The Duke is located near a Bearss Lime tree, which can also succumb to cold weather freezes, but has done quite well in the spot we placed it four years ago.

I'm pleased to report that this tree is experiencing a growth spurt in its new home and hope the incredible growth pattern that I've read about regarding the Duke tree also holds true. As to when this tree will produce its first real avocado, that's anyone's guess. It can take some trees five to seven years before they will produce.

I'm hoping for a little quicker production than that -- but have also learned the time honored rule when it comes to gardening or growing good things in the garden: Patience is a virtue.


Newly Grafted Duke Avocado Tree
Sorry folks -- demand exceeded supply. I mean, way, way, WAY exceeded supply. Our Duke Avocado operation is quite small. Once I announced several months ago that Duke trees were for sale? I was inundated with email requests from across the continental United States. I even discovered the location of another Duke tree -- growing in a USDA Agricultural Research Station located outside of Miami! Yes -- the Duke grows in Florida! And probably elsewhere.

So, I'm sorry to report that the window has closed shut. Heck, it's been nailed down. I have so many requests for Duke trees that it will take years to fulfill them all.

In the meantime? If you've got your heart and soul stuck on a Duke Avocado, as I did, you can always make one, as I did.

Find the details of how I did it here and here.