Venus and The Duke

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Venus and The Duke Avocado Tree
Yeah, yeah, I know. It's not quite as snappy as "Bennie and The Jets," but give it a few years. Pretty soon it will just roll right off the tongue. Because Venus and The Duke are going to be telling their story for a very long time. At some point -- in the very near future I hope -- I will be posting photos of the fabulous guacamole that Venus will whip up from a very rare crop of Duke Avocados.

There's my fine lady to the right standing next to her favorite fruit-bearing tree in the Bird Back 40. It hasn't yielded a single fruit yet. But with avocado trees you need a little bit of luck and an awful lot of patience. I've come to learn a little of both following a near lifetime of killing avocado tree varieties right and left.

The Duke: October 2013
The Duke Avocado, which was barely two feet tall when I first planted it in it's permanent spot in a protected side yard exactly one year ago last October, laughed at the December frosts that coated the Bird Back 40 last year. While other citrus trees either gave up the ghost completely or died back by half, the Duke sailed through the freezing conditions with nary a scratch on it. In fact -- I'll make the point that it actually grew a full leaf set during last winter's colder than cold conditions. These conditions I might add, have doomed other avocado plantings in the past.

While I wouldn't consider myself the absolute authority on the Duke Avocado tree -- I have discovered a lot of information about it that is not contained in previous blog posts about this incredibly rare, freeze tolerant, avocado tree. Yes -- you're eyes did not fool you. This is one of the few tropical fruits that not only withstands sustained freezing conditions, it appears to prefer them. There is no other avocado variety on this planet, as far as I can tell, that offers this wonderful advantage. While most avocado varieties can be very touchy about climatic conditions, the Duke appears to be bullet and idiot proof.

Armstrong Nursery Catalog: 1929
This is a good thing -- as my idiot meter seems to spin out of control from time to time.

How do I know that the Duke is nearly bullet proof? From experience and lots and lots of research. The most recent discoveries about this ancient variety came only recently thanks to an inquisitive librarian by the name of Kelly Zackmann who toils for the public library system in the Southern California city of Ontario. This city was, at one time, home to one of the most groundbreaking and innovative nurseries in California: The Armstrong Nursery.

The nursery business closed up shop in 1970 following the death of founder John Armstrong, who lived to be nearly 100 years old. Although it continues today under the brand of Armstrong Garden Centers, with locations scattered about Southern California, there is no family connection anymore. And when the Armstrong family decided to finally sell the business following John Armstrong's passing, they had 70 years worth of records and other information that needed to be hauled away.

1929 Catalog Contains First Mention of The Duke
Thank goodness it didn't wind up in some landfill. Instead, it was donated to the City of Ontario public library system. The contents inside 80 boxes filled with horticultural history was carefully cataloged, stored and then largely forgotten. I knew about this history and where it was stored, but I figured out fairly early on that I wasn't going to make a special trip all the way to Ontario to dig through 80 boxes of Armstrong Nursery history. I'm nuts people -- but not that nuts.

Why the interest in old horticulture history? Because it was John Armstrong who saw the great promise that the Duke Avocado offered. It was Armstrong who would receive cuttings from the Mother Duke tree that grew from seed at the Sunnyslope Nursery located near Bangor in Butte County in 1924. It was Armstrong who attempted the very first grafting attempts of this unique tree. And it was Armstrong who, for decades, exclusively offered the Duke Avocado through his extensive and profitable catalog business.

1937 Armstrong Nursery Catalog
Short and simple? Without Armstrong's work, this avocado variety probably wouldn't exist. He saw its potential and for years he marketed the Duke Avocado as the ideal tree for planting in "cold interior districts." Although Armstrong would discontinue his catalog business at some point, he would continue to offer the tree on a wholesale basis to California nurseries up until 1971. That was right about the time the Armstrong family sold the business.

Meticulous research notes kept on the Duke tree from the late thirties and into the forties confirm that the tree, for some reason, does not bear well on the coast of California. However, the further inland it is planted, the better it does. The research tells the story of a ten year old Duke tree in Pomona that produced 3,000 fruits in one year. Groves of Duke trees in Arizona were reported to do even better.

Armstrong Nursery Research Notes on The Duke Avocado
Groves of Duke Avocado trees in Arizona? Yes, at one time they were grown there. Unfortunately, the passage of this thing called "time" tends to change the topography somewhat. The ranch where these groves once grew in abundance in Tucson, AZ was sold, subdivided and now contains nothing more than housing subdivisions. It happens to the best of us I suppose.

The Duke tree I have growing in the side yard of the Bird Back 40 grew five feet in one year. It is green, lush and very healthy. It now stands close to seven feet tall. According to further research notes obtained from Armstrong Nursery, Duke trees begin to bear fruit four or five years after planting. While I'm hopeful that my healthy Duke tree will begin to bear something next year, it probably isn't going to happen.

Venus and her Duke Avocado Tree
Patience, young man. Patience.

If you want to learn more about my quest to discover and grow a freeze tolerant avocado variety in North Natomas, I suppose it's best to start from the beginning. You can find followup reports here, here and even here.