As a young bloke living with my parents on Rowbotham Street (Toowoomba), I used to enjoy taking our dog Aussie for a walk around what was then bush and farm lined back streets. One loop I’d often take took me past a new housing development, and I distinctly remember one winter seeing a huge old avocado tree absolutely dripping with fruit.
I haven’t been back to see whether the old tree is still there, but my guess is that it’s gone. Avocados were once grown commercially in outer Toowoomba and the trees were a common sight in suburbs across the city. Sadly, most have since been removed to the point that there are few mature avocado trees left.
The recent controversy over the butchering of a fruit laden tree in Newtown to clear powerlines should serve as a case in point. Some avos grow to be reasonably large trees, attaining heights of around 10 metres with an equally grand, spreading canopy. This makes them magnificent edible shade trees for a big backyard. But in our risk-averse society, people who grow and cherish big trees in suburbia are made to feel like social pariahs.
Apparently the poor avocado loving bloke in Newtown committed the ultimate sin – he let his tree grow over the fence and get a bit close to powerlines. God forbid that a fruit laden tree might cause a potential blackout or worse still, land a hard fruit on an unsuspecting pedestrian’s scone. So in come the electrical company’s tree fellers, whose handiwork is on show across Toowoomba (Hume Street camphor laurels, anyone?) to bring the tree under control. What do they care if the tree is laden with fruit or not. Why respect a gentlemen’s agreement that might have been in place. The tree was deemed risky and in the power company’s narrow view had to get the chop.
I heard people advising the avo grower to plant a dwarf Wurtz tree, suggesting that this would solve his problem. I have a couple of issues with this suggestion. For one, mature trees of any species cannot be replaced, only anticipated. Secondly, Wurtz might be dwarfing in relative terms, but still has the potential to get to four metres tall and at least that wide. Third, the flesh isn’t as prized as most other avocado varieties. And fourth, unlike the Hass variety, which is usually self pollinating, a Wurtz tree may need a second (much larger growing) variety for effective pollination.
So what’s the wash up? Let the gardener grow whatever he chooses and work with him to produce a well grown tree. The power company should have allowed the fruit to reach maturity before wielding the chainsaw (avos are selling for nearly three dollars a pop at the moment) then prune it judiciously. Don’t just hack off any limb that encroaches on public space – work with the tree’s owner to shape it properly, and keep it at a more appropriate size. And honestly, the risk of someone getting conked on the head by a falling avo is pretty minuscule. The fruit famously hangs on the tree for months, giving the owner ample time to harvest his crop, and besides, a Hass on the head is no match for the larger variety Reed.
Here’s how I know. Every spring some friends over at Ravensbourne have a communal harvest day, where a group of people get together to pick the fruit from their avocado orchard and enjoy a social occasion to boot. Last spring we picked Reed avos, and the simplest way to get the job done was for one person to climb the tree (avos make brilliant climbing trees for kids, and adventurous adults), pick the high fruit, and throw it down to a catcher on the ground.
On this occasion, Kylie was playing the role of climber, and I was the catcher. All was going swimmingly until someone nearby asked me a question, at which point I took my eyes off what was happening up in the canopy and missed seeing Kylie launch a fruit in my direction. It clobbered me fair in the chest from a height of five metres, and let me tell you, if you’ve ever been struck in the chest by a falling Reed avo it’s like being hit by a cannonball. Thought I was going to suffer a coronary.
I obviously lived to tell the tale, and I don’t share people’s paranoia about large fruit trees. In my view they’re a vital part of our suburbs, and that’s the key point. They’re our suburbs. Not the power company’s. So go ahead and plant an avo or two in the back corner of the garden, and when the fruit’s on, offer a bag full to the tree pruners as a reward for their common sense.
First published 25th May 2013. Photo by Justin, ripening avocadoes in a Hampton orchard.