Growing an Avocado Tree from Seed
Photo by Paula Schultz

 

 

I slice an avocado open, lengthwise, and spoon its fruit onto a salad. On a whim, I decide not to dispose of the seed. I’ve never grown an avocado tree from seed, but I don’t have to research how to do it. I know by osmosis. I watched my mother do it many times when I was a child. I take a stray pint Mason jar from the cupboard and fill it with water. I choose four toothpicks from a box in the same cupboard and plunge them into the seed on four sides, then lay the pinwheel of wooden sticks and stone across the mouth of the jar. The fat base of the seed is submerged, like an iceberg. The narrow tip points up, exposed to the air. I place the jar on the ledge of an open window, facing the sun.

 

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My mother had a green thumb. When she planted things, they grew and thrived, seemingly no matter how much or how little attention she paid to them. When my mother died, she left behind many living things she’d grown or helped to grow. Me. My sister and two brothers. Four grandchildren, including my oldest son, Timothy, a boy she’d raised more than I had in so many of his first years. She left a backyard filled with jasmine and rose bushes and hummingbird feeders. Indoors, she left about fifty potted plants. My father sent the plants home with me at the end of a visit not long after my mother was gone. I loaded the plants into my car and drove them the two hours home, crying most of the way. I couldn’t see out the rear window – the plants surrounded me like a lush, green womb.

When I remember the drive home with my mother’s orphaned plants, I see them filling an old, pale lemon yellow Ford Maverick. I know that cannot be. My sister Lisa blew the Maverick’s engine when she was a teenager, about fifteen years before my mother died – she hadn’t checked the oil, something neither she nor I had learned by osmosis to do. It wasn’t the first or the last of my father’s cars that we killed. I can’t remember which car I was driving when my mother died. I think it was a chocolate brown Mercury Sable. But the Maverick has taken its place in my memories, and that’s okay with me.

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It’s important to keep the bottom of the avocado seed soaked, but to let the narrow tip dry out and crack open to make space for it to sprout. I haven’t angled the toothpicks downward enough, so too little of the avocado seed is submerged. As a result, every morning, I have to top off the Mason jar until water bows up at the top and threatens to spill over the lip of the jar. I consider taking the toothpicks out and repositioning them, but it seems cruel to bore more or deeper holes into the seed, to traumatize it further. 

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My father gave me all my mother’s plants but one. He kept a low, wide basket of zebra plant he had developed a love-hate relationship with. He kept it in the master bathroom because the relative humidity in that room, my mother once told him, mimicked the plant’s native tropical climate. My father determined to keep it alive as long as he could. The zebra plant and my father lived together for six years after my mother left us, and then they left us, too.

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When I drove my mother’s plants home with me after she died, it wasn’t the first time they’d made a car trip. In the late sixties and early seventies, we lived in a small town in San Diego County called Coronado. People call it an island, but it is a narrow isthmus positioned between San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. When I was a teenager, we moved from a house in Coronado that we loved to a house in California’s Central Valley that we hated, and the plants came along.

In Coronado, my mother fashioned bookshelves out of wooden planks she purchased from a lumber yard and square-foot cement paving bricks she bought at a home-and-garden store. She loaded the shelves with books: Pearl S. Buck, Taylor Caldwell, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, James Michener. An old volume of poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her Book of the Month Club editions. A volume of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that, for me, ignited a lifelong love. A copy of The Good Earth that I read when I was eleven years old and home with the chicken pox. It is still easy to picture my mother in any one of our many living rooms, reading. I have a vivid memory of being grounded the summer of 1974 – I don’t remember the offense, I only remember shutting myself in my bedroom with my mother’s copy of Gone with the Wind, a way to kill the time until I was free again. Some of my favorite memories are of the summer days my mother and I spent together, reading and swapping books. On those first remembered bookshelves in Coronado, my mother interspersed the books with ceramics she’d painted – mostly gnomes in vibrant turquoise blues and oranges and lime greens – and indoor plants. So many plants, everywhere.

Outside our house in Coronado, abandoned, iridescent abalone shells were so plentiful on the beach across the street that my parents used them for ashtrays. We children gathered them. We counted the holes in the side of each shell to learn its age. Ice plants, or “ice pickles” as we called them, grew in abundance – succulents with thick, fleshy leaves and purple flowers that looked like sea anemones. We plucked the leaves, broke them open, and, as if they were crayons, used them to write on the sidewalk and to painstakingly outline squares for hopscotch. There was a profusion of oleander, too, which was beautiful – delicate, ice-white flowers against sharp, deep green leaves – but which we were warned not to touch because its leaves were poisonous. And hydrangea in balls of snow white and pastel blues, pinks, lavenders. 

Indoors, my mother’s love for growing things had just begun. Her spider plants were my favorites. She hung them from the ceiling on heavy cup hooks, and I was fascinated with the way they dropped their baby spiders down the sides of their pots. For sitting-on-the-shelf plants, she leaned toward philodendron and Boston ferns. When we moved, my dad had to attach his MG Midget to the back of our station wagon like a trailer and fill it with my mother’s potted friends. The plants shadowed my mother from San Diego to the Central Valley, then from the Central Valley to Monterey County, through several Salinas neighborhoods. They then traveled south with her to Lockwood, and later to Pine Canyon on the outskirts of King City, where they lived until my mother died and I took them home to live and die with me.

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I do not have a green thumb. Things don’t grow and thrive in my care. I tried. I suspect I tried too hard. And too little. I watered my mother’s plants. Perhaps overwatered them. Then fearing I’d saturated them, afraid that I’d drowned them until they could not breathe, I backed off. Perhaps I backed off too much. I talked to them. I ignored them. Always too much or too little. I never got it exactly right. Over the next dozen or so years, they died, one by one. 

When all I had left was one large cobalt blue floor planter of soil containing nothing more than a dead stick, I refused to let it go. I carried the planter with me for twenty years, giving it my on-and-off-again plant love. I held on to something I’d read, that indoor plants can live indefinitely, seeding and reseeding themselves. I held on to the hope that the plant wasn’t dead, but dormant, and that one day I would look over at the pot of dirt, the dead stick in the corner of my living room, and see a tiny green sprout. A sign of life. I never did.

Life was not kind to me after my mother died. I was not kind to life, or to others, or to myself. I withdrew into my own pain and ignored the pain of those who needed me. When my mother died, I had the unsettling and panicked feeling that I had been cut loose from the earth somehow, like a helium balloon floating untethered. I felt it physically and tried to grab on to anything I could to keep from floating away, but I knew I could have disappeared into the clouds and no one could have saved me. They would have helplessly watched from below as I left it all behind. How does one continue to live without a mother? I wasn’t sure I could.

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The top of my avocado seed is dry and cracked, and the base of the seed has split open. A white taproot has grown out the bottom. Now I must wait for a root system to grow. This sign that the tree is growing, that all that is supposed to happen is happening, encourages me. I read about what will come next: once the seed sprouts, I will be able to move the plant into a pot of soil. There are differing opinions about whether it’s necessary, but I belatedly peel the dark brown outer shell from the seed.

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Some years after my mother died, my life fell apart, as it often does. The particular trigger doesn’t matter. My life has been an endless series of falling apart and putting back together. But that year it was many things at once – the recent loss of my father, a brother going to prison, the loss of a job, a boyfriend who gambled away the rent money. What I remember most is that, this time, I felt like I was sinking.

I emailed a friend, a man I had known since we were children. When we were teenagers, he’d been my first serious boyfriend, my first love, and over the years he’d continued to love me despite so much. He asked me to marry him three times, and he continued to love me each time I refused him, even when I instead married other, lesser men. He was always there, and he was there this time, too. 

By then, we were in our forties, and Mark was living in a house on Ninth Street in Coronado. It was the house his grandmother had lived in when we were children, back when both his mother and mine were living and were best friends. I remember our mothers baking chocolate chip cookies together in his grandmother’s kitchen – my girlfriend and I hid behind an overstuffed chair in the living room and took our first and last tastes of vanilla extract from a stolen bottle, tempted by the smell.

In the midst of my latest despair, Mark responded to my email with a picture of a single, red-pink rose. He explained that a rosebush had recently sprung up and bloomed in his grandmother’s backyard. He asked his mother where it came from, because there had never been roses in the backyard in the many years he’d lived there. She told him that my mother had planted the roses in the 1970s, but they’d eventually died, or so she’d thought. They’d been sleeping for a long time, but thirty years later, one had awakened and bloomed just when I needed it to.

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I have allowed the demarcation line on the seed, between the dry tip and the submerged bottom, to dry out a little, but not enough. I haven’t been consistent about filling the water to the lip of the jar each day. I haven’t been diligent about changing the water out every Saturday morning, a necessary transfusion. And now there is a tiny spot of mold on the seed, right where the water meets the air. I fill the jar up to the top again and promise myself to be more careful, hope the situation will resolve itself, research what to do. It is not a big problem, a website reassures me. I wipe the mold off with a damp paper towel as the website suggests and move the seed around in the water, dance it lightly, feed it sunshine, so it doesn’t stagnate.

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When I moved into a new house two summers ago, I wanted to fill it with plants, to make it a home as my mother had always done. I went to a nursery near my house to shop for houseplants. But I didn’t choose the plants my mother had loved. I chose succulents in pots – burro’s tail, lucky plant, Mexican rose, trailing jade. Easy-to-care-for plants that are encouraged in California because they are drought-tolerant and don’t consume too much of California’s limited supply of water. No one need know my real reason for choosing them. No one would suspect I chose them not so much because I am a water conservationist but because they are the only plants that might be able to survive me.

But even succulents need water and light and room to grow. My pots are too small. I’ve never learned how much water is the right amount of water, something that seems more of a challenge with these plants – they seem to thrive on little water, but to quite suddenly show the effects of too little. The slight sun they get from my kitchen windowsill does not seem to be sufficient, and there is no safe place to put them outside. It feels important to me to carry on a small part of my mother’s legacy. A home without plants seems a slight to her memory. When my succulents are about to succumb, my son-in-law takes them home with him and repots them. When he returns them to me, they are thriving again.

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The taproot has grown long now, almost reaching the bottom of the Mason jar. I am regretting so many things. The mis-angling of the toothpicks. My inattention. Now the choice of a too-small jar to start the seed. I reluctantly relocate the seed to a tall glass. Reluctantly, I say, because I am always indecisive, always afraid of change, always afraid that whatever choice I make will be the wrong one. Leaving it in the jar means crowding the taproot and inhibiting the growth of a root system. Moving it to a bigger container means introducing it to a new and perhaps less hospitable environment, something unknown and unfamiliar. But I move it and wait to see what happens.

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As a child, I was uprooted frequently, repotted here, then there. As much as I hated the moving, it inexplicably bred in me a lifelong yearning to move, a dread of standing still. I have lived my life in a constant state of indecisiveness – almost as soon as I arrive in a place, I begin contemplating whether to go and where to go. It is not in my nature to stay. But the older I get, the more there are other things to consider. Other people to consider. I have three grown children now, children I uprooted frequently, repotted here, then there. Despite me, they have grown up to be the opposite of wanderers. They all live in this same town and have no plans to leave it. They are stable and solid. My sons have made me a grandmother three times over, and their children can count on them to stay. In the spring, my daughter, my youngest, will give birth to her first child. My daughter will be a mother, and I will be a grandmother again. 

I stood still for a while, and now I have taken root in this place.

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The taproot grows quickly and reaches the bottom of the glass, and now regular roots are shooting out sideways, surrounding the taproot. I move the seed to a tall vase with plenty of room at the bottom for the roots to grow. When I do, I notice a tiny bit of green sprouting from the crack in the top of the seed. I examine it more closely, look inside the seed, and see it is a tiny stalk, no more than half an inch – delicate, baby leaves wrapped around a slight stem, ready to unfurl.

 

 

Author's Comment

In August 2020, when all of us were baking bread and making preserves, I tried to grow an avocado tree. I am not a plant person, but like most people, I was stuck at home and bored. I remembered my mother growing avocado plants when I was a child, and I decided to try growing one myself. As I nurtured the plant into being, it became a metaphor for so many things in my life – motherhood, grief, change, letting go. I began to write down my memories and my thoughts. The following month, my daughter told me she was pregnant with her first child, and I knew the ending of my essay would not be about any of the sadness that had come before, but about hope and new beginnings. My granddaughter, Louise Maybelle, was born May 10, 2021.

Bio

Leanne Phillips is a lifelong Californian with a love of history, live music, and beachcombing. Her work has appeared in Kelp Journal, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Coachella Review. In June 2021, a month before her 61st birthday, she received an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California at Riverside, Palm Desert.

4 Comments on “Growing an Avocado Tree from Seed

  1. I loved the memories you shared of your mother, Leanne. What a beautiful tribute! (And I chuckled at your description of caring for inside plants, because mine are the same.)

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