What's the Difference Between the Avocado Varieties You See at the Grocery Store?

From Hass to Florida avocados (and everything in between), our experts break down everything you need to know about this luscious fruit.

sliced avocados on cutting board
Photo: Chris Simpson

Avocados lined up in dark, knobbly rows in the supermarket are a familiar sight. So familiar, that we tend not to think about them too much. Then a larger, or smaller avocado appears in our social media feed, in a different neighborhood market, or in the contents of a new Californian or Floridian fruit box, causing some wonder: How many different avocados are there? (Answer: lots.) Do they all taste the same? Is one variety better than the rest? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

The Avocado Tree

Persea americana is the botanical name for the avocado tree. (It is related to bay leaf, in the family Lauraceae; like bay laurel, some avocado leaves are very aromatic and edible). The avocado tree is native to the humid, sub-tropical regions of central and northern South America; however, it's now cultivated worldwide in subtropical and Mediterranean climates, with Mexico producing more avocados than any other country. In the United States, 90 percent of avocados are grown in California.

Archaeological records show evidence of active selection of avocados in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, going back 8,000 years, meaning that humans have been growing the fruit for a very long time. Early written records by Europeans show that three groups of avocado were broadly distinguished, each from a different region. Those groups are now referred to as botanical races. They are the ancestors of modern avocados.

Avocados are differentiated by two factors: How they bloom, and their races.

Flowers, first: Avocado trees can produce a million flowers or more—most drop off, but the abundance attracts pollinators. The flowers are complete, meaning they have male and female parts. And here's a fascinating, if complex titbit: Avocado flowers' behavior is known as protogynous dichogamy. The flowers on one tree synchronise to open together, and all as only male, or only female. After they close they open again as the other sex. In the wild this gender fluidity would have ensured cross-pollination with other trees, rather than self-pollinating. Within this behavior, there are two types: Some trees will open first in the morning as female, close and then reopen the next afternoon as male. These are Type A. Type B trees open in the afternoon as female, close and then reopen the next morning as male. Both types are required in an orchard if the flowers are to be pollinated successfully.

Persea americana has three ancestral varieties known as races: Mexican (P. americana var. drymifolia), West Indian (P. americana, var. americana)—which probably originated in Yucatán, not the West Indies)—and Guatemalan (P. americana var. guatemalensis).

Hass Versus Florida

The most cold-hardy avocado is the fall-ripening Mexican race, which has small fruit (sometimes egg-sized), with a high oil content and rich flavor, which tends to cling to the pit, and thin purple to black skins; their leaves have a distinctive fragrance, like anise. Guatemalan race avocados are more sensitive to frost, and produce medium-sized fruit with thin to thick, coarse, gritty skins that are green, purple, or black. They ripen in spring and early summer. The most tropical of the avocadoes is the West Indian race, fruiting in summer. Its fruit can be huge, up to two pounds, less oily—so perceived as moister—with smooth, shiny green skins.

All cultivated avocados are descended from these three races. Hybrids and cultivars may select particular characteristics from each. For instance, in the U.S., the avocado we see most often is the 'Hass,' shown above left, a hybrid of Mexican and Guatemalan races; its pebbly skin blackens as it ripens. 'Gwen' (shown above, top) is a close cousin to the Hass. It's rounder than it's relative, has a small seed and a nutty flavor.

Look out for the 'Fuerte'; it's often considered the archetypal avocado, green in color, pear-like in shape, and ranging from six to 12 ounces in size. It has smooth, medium-thin skin that peels easily, with dense, pale green flesh. It is marginally oily and has a rich, creamy flavor.

Avocados grown in Florida tend to be Guatemalan and West Indian hybrids. These green avocados are generally known for having lower fat and calorie content than their counterparts like Hass, as they typically contain less oil and more water content. There are too many named cultivars to mention but if you see a large bright green avocado at the store, know that it's likely to be Florida avocado. The large variety (shown bottom, center) is a 'Choquette,' which is five to six times larger than a Hass.

Tasting Different Avocado Varieties

If you do dive deep into avocadosploration, line up some different fruits and offer yourself a tasting. Compare appearance, texture, and flavor. Generally speaking, the higher the oil content, the richer and more buttery and nutty the avocado will taste. Try them spread on toast, in a vegan poke bowl, in composite salads, in ice cream, or as the base for velvety chilled soups. The lower the oil content, the better the avocado might work muffins, in smoothies, and salad dressing (replacing dairy). So churn a batch of avocado ice cream, or mix up the ancient sauce of the Aztecs: Modern guacamole has not lost its appeal (even if ahuaca-mulli was perhaps made with culantro rather than with the European cilantro we use now!).

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