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Family Tree : Hass' 1st Avocado Seedling Still Stands and Bears Fruit

March 29, 1992|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She is one of Earth's most prolific mothers, with an estimated 15 million progeny scattered throughout California and around the globe. And although most people do not know it--most people these days do not pronounce the name right--every time they buy a Hass avocado in the supermarket, they are buying a small piece of her.

She is the Hass Mother Tree, the genetic source of every Hass avocado in the world.

Once, in the time before housing developments and mini-malls, the Hass Mother Tree stood in the middle of one of the biggest avocado-producing areas in California. But like so much former agricultural land in the Los Angeles area, the area around the Hass Mother Tree has changed.

The tree stands in the front yard of a ranch-style house on West Road in La Habra Heights, largely unnoticed, its role in agricultural history marked by a simple bronze plaque that is difficult to spot from the road. The tree is old, pushing 70, and has suffered through droughts, storms and hard freezes. But it is still majestic, as avocado trees go, and still bears the fruit that made it famous.

That it exists at all is a little short of miraculous.

The tree was planted in 1926, during the Coolidge Administration, after Rudolph Hass, a 33-year-old Pasadena postman, bought it from A.R. Rideout, a Whittier nurseryman. Hass planted it and a couple of dozen other assorted seedlings on his 1 1/2-acre plot on West Road. The Hass "ranch," as the family called it, was one of many small hobby farms that dotted the La Habra Heights area.

The name "Hass" rhymes with pass, not hah-ss, as most people pronounce it. That mispronunciation may account for the fact that some supermarket produce managers insist on spelling it H-a-a-s.

Hass planned to use the seedling as root stock on which to graft other varieties of avocado tree buds. But the grafts did not take, and Hass gave up. By 1931, he was planning to cut it down.

There are several versions of how the tree was saved.

Joseph E. Upton was living with his wife, Robbie, in the small house on the Hass place in exchange for taking care of the avocado trees.

As Upton, 86, recalls, he and his wife had been eating the fruit from the uncooperative seedling tree, which was then 5 years old, and thought it was delicious. True, the skin was dark purple, almost black, thick and rough, not like the thin green skins of the then-dominant Fuerte avocado variety. But the flesh of the fruit was creamy and not fibrous, with high oil content and a nutty taste.

"I told him: 'Mr. Hass, that's good fruit,' " Upton said. " 'You should try it.' "

Hass did and realized the Uptons were right.

Others say it was Hass' children who first brought the tree's special fruit to their father's attention.

"It was all just an accident," Upton said. "Not to take anything away from Mr. Hass; he was a fine man, and he had a fine family. But he didn't actually propagate anything. It just happened."

Hass' son, Charles, a Westlake Village accountant, said his father attributed the discovery of the tree to a different source. "My father always said it was an act of God," Charles Hass said.

Over the next few years, Hass experimented with the fruit from the tree, found that it did not break off in high winds and, because of its tough skin, was well-suited for shipping. In 1935, he took out a patent on what he called "a new and improved variety of avocado."

That same year, he agreed to let H.H. Brokaw, a Whittier nurseryman, grow and promote the Hass avocado, using buds from the Hass Mother Tree. Hass got 25% of the proceeds from sales of the trees.

But it was a tough sell.

Partisans of other avocado varieties said the Hass was ugly, and many growers resisted it.

Avocado growers eventually came to appreciate the Hass' high yields and the rough skin that hides blemishes. Consumers came to appreciate its taste. In the late 1960s, Hass production exceeded production of the Fuerte variety. Hass avocados now account for about 85% of California's crop.

Hass did not live to see his avocado become the most popular variety in the world. He died in 1952.

Now, according to Hank Brokaw of Brokaw Nursery Inc. of Saticoy, the nephew of H.H. Brokaw, there are 5 million Hass avocado trees in California, and another 10 million scattered throughout the world, including large concentrations in Israel, Australia and Chile. And every one of them is a descendant of the Hass Mother Tree.

The Hass family, however, never made a lot of money from his avocados. "For coming up with the greatest avocado in the world, my father's royalties totaled 4,800 bucks over the life of the patent," said Charles Hass.

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