From the July/August 2000 FRUIT GARDENER 

'Stearns': An Early Avocado

Paul H Thomson

In the 1940s a man named Cooper had an avocado grove in Baldwin Park, Calif. A chance seedling, most probably from a seed of the Fuerte variety, appeared in his grove. When at length the tree came into bearing it produced excellent quality fruit with an average-size seed. The fruit resembled that of the Fuerte. The sole feature distinguishing it from the Fuerte was a small, darker-green circle some 1/2- to 3/4-inch in diameter at the base of the fruit.

A most important aspect of this fruit was that it came into maturity two to three months earlier than the Fuerte. It could thus fill the gap left after the summer-bearing Guatemalan varieties and before the winter-bearing varieties, which were mostly Mexican. An added bonus was that the fruit hung well on the tree, did not deteriorate in quality and continued to increase in oil content reaching 24% by mid-February. That gave the variety a commercial advantage for this reason: If the price was low at the beginning of the season, the harvest could be delayed in the hope that the price would rise later on.

In the early 1950s Mr. Alex Stearns purchased property near the Cooper grove and soon learned about the promising qualities of this seedling. He propagated it in his own grove and desired to call it the 'Cooper'. When he consulted the listing of avocado varieties in the Avocado Societv Yearbook he found the name Cooper already listed. For this reason the seedling was never introduced as a variety to the avocado world. Nevertheless, Alex regularly sold the fruit in the market as an "early Fuerte" and received good prices for it.

Development Threatens Potential

By the late 1960s and early 1970s cultural build-up had surrounded Alex's grove, to the extent that he moved to Fallbrook, Calif. and purchased a property in a warm location where he began growing cherimoyas and some citrus. Since there were a number of old avocado trees on the property, he brought the subject variety from Baldwin Park and top-worked several trees to it.

When the grafts came into flower they produced a surprise: Not only did the "variety" bear well, but the surrounding Fuerte trees also produced better-than-normal crops. This would indicate that the Stearns grafts may have a type A flower. During a cold winter they suffered less damage from cold than the Fuerte trees, which is a decided advantage for colder areas. Today those trees are spreading in habit but a little more upright than the Fuertes.

Weighing the Potential

I met Alex two or three years after he moved to Fallbrook and was intrigued by the good qualities of this seedling as he described them to me. I decided to find out at just what time the fruit was sufficiently mature to be marketable, since by law, it required an 8% oil content to be legally put on the market. I obtained some fruit from Alex and on the 1st of September took it to the Calavo packing house in Fscondido, Calif. for determination of its oil content. It tested 8%, satisfying the legal requirement. Further, the Calavo representative told me that its quality was excellent.

On the 1st of October I again took the fruit to Calavo. This time it tested at 12%. I asked the Calavo representative if he would be willing to market the fruit. His reply was that before it could be put on the market with the Calavo label he would first have to "test the market." I asked how much fruit would be necessary to accomplish this. He replied, "10,000 pounds." That disappointing exchange immediately ended my association with Calavo.

Prodigy Becomes the 'Stearns'

This seedling needed a name. Since Alex Stearns had propagated it over the years, I liked to call it the 'Stearns'. I continued to spread the word about its sterling qualities. I took it to the Beattie and Travis Avocado Company, an independent handler in Vista, Calif. Sammy Travis was so interested that he top-worked five large old avocado trees to it.

A few years later a dentist in Vista, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, planted a small avocado grove of some 62 seedling trees and was trying to decide what kinds of varieties should be used for grafting. I described the Stearns to him and he agreed to have me graft it the next spring.

When the grafted trees came into bearing he took the fruit to Sammy Travis for sale. Sammy looked at it and said he was the only handler who could recognize the variety. He told the dentist, "I know this variety is excellent but I cannot give you the price it deserves, since it must be marketed along with Bacon and Zutano varieties as "other greens." I'm sorry, but the best I can give you is four cents a pound more than these other two much poorer varieties." The dentist called me the next spring and asked me to top-work his entire grove to the Hass variety. He could get 15 cents a pound more for the Hass.

Alex Stearns died some 15 years ago, but I have continued my interest in the Stearns avocado. Since the Stearns has never been commercially propagated as a named variety, I would like to suggest that consideration be given by CRFG members to plant it as a backyard tree. It will give them top-quality fruit during the time when the Hass and other varieties have not yet attained edible quality. If you are wondering how you might obtain some, I have spoken with Sammy Travis and he has agreed to allow me to take graft wood from his trees to give to interested CRFG members.

Help Save a Variety

To the best of my knowledge these are the only remaining trees grafted to the Stearns. I believe it would be an extraordinary loss to allow this excellent variety to lapse into obscurity, or worse yet, to become as extinct as the Dodo bird.

I sincerely hope that CRFG members will rise to the occasion and rescue the Stearns before it is too late. This is not an idle hope; residential developers have lately been hammering hard on Sammy Travis, trying to persuade him to give up his operation and sell his acreage to them so they can build yet another high-class California subdivision. If this happens the Stearns and all of its potential will fall to the bulldozer blade along with everything else at the Travis orchard. The Stearns will be gone forever.

Consider this predicament carefully. A cultivar with great promise is at risk of being extirpated. With only minimal effort you can be among those who could boast of saving a potentially priceless avocado variety.

Paul Thomson is a co-founder of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

(The dates used in this article are approximate since the author no longer possesses records that give them exactly. He has been forced to rely on memory in the reconstruction of this account)

After this article appeared in the Fruit Gardener, CRFG members from the Orange County Chapter contacted Mr. Thomson and met with him to obtain scionwood. Some of the wood was top-worked to a tree at the SCREC which is now about 10 feet tall, and in blossom this year (2002). Other wood was tip grafted to seedlings and was available at the Green Scene last April, and there will be trees available again at the April Green Scene this year.