An exceptionally tall avocado tree in San Francisco bears free fruit in more ways than one

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When Ammar Swalim took over a small hardware store in Pacific Heights two weeks ago, he knew he would inherit tight aisles filled with hammers, bleach and light bulbs. He had no idea what was growing in the backyard of the California Street business: a massive avocado tree dripping with fruit so plump each made a thud when it fell to the ground.

The avocado tree – lush, verdant and with too many branches to count – dominates the backyard with a magical presence. That an avocado tree this size, estimated to be nearly 50 feet tall, bears softball-sized lime-green avocados in foggy San Francisco adds to the mystique. They generally grow best in warm, humid climates, and it can take up to 15 years for an avocado tree planted from seed to produce fruit.

So when Swalim took to Nextdoor.com on Sunday to offer free avocados from the tree, he unexpectedly opened the floodgates to a flurry of excitement. His post on the neighborhood platform attracted more than 250 comments in less than 24 hours. Her inbox flooded with requests from all over the Bay Area. Several people (including this reporter) rushed to claim some of the tree’s big avocados on Monday, which shares the yard with a lemon tree and a rosemary bush.

Ammar Swalim next to the trunk of the huge avocado tree in the garden, whose fruit he distributes to neighbours.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

Every day at Pacific Heights True Value Hardware Store, Swalim weaves his way through its aisles and up a flight of stairs in the backyard to pick up avocados that have fallen to the ground. He has eaten more than a few himself and says they are delicious.

But he found he had so many that he thought he’d give them away for free to people in the neighborhood – and maybe find some business for his store. But when he posted on Nextdoor, he accidentally alerted all of San Francisco.

“I believe we have the largest avocado tree in the United States located in the heart of Pacific Heights,” Swalim proudly proclaimed under blurry photos of the tree in his post. “All the neighbors eat (them) and they’re tired of eating so many avocados.”

Almost immediately, people started clamoring for a locally grown version of the beloved, quintessentially Californian fruit.

“Let the games begin,” joked a Nextdoor poster.

Some offered to swap fruits and herbs from their own backyards. A San Francisco Public Works representative suggested that Swalim register the tree with the city’s urban harvesting program so the avocados could be distributed to shelters and food banks. Some have sent Swalim messages about avocado trees in their own lives, like a woman’s mother’s tree in Hawaii, or another tree in San Francisco that is also huge but never bears fruit.

The most impatient, however, showed up as early as possible to secure their prizes, which Swalim keeps in a crate under the store’s cash register.

“They are excited. They are happy to have free avocados,” Swalim said of the people who stopped by the store on Monday. He gave two or three lawyers to each person. Several bought something at the hardware store as a thank you.

Elsa Brontë was one of the Nextdoor users who saw Ammar Swalim's post and came to pick up some of the big local lawyers.

Elsa Brontë was one of the Nextdoor users who saw Ammar Swalim’s post and came to pick up some of the big local lawyers.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

Elsa Brontë was among the lucky ones who landed lawyers. She planned to spread the creamy flesh on leftover pork tenderloin sandwiches and toss it into arugula salads. Seeing the attorney’s post on Nextdoor, a website best known for its lengthy crime and neighborhood complaint threads, was a welcome change.

“It’s refreshing to see a positive and generous message on Nextdoor,” Bronte said. “I think that’s also what attracted me.”

Swalim, who took over the store after working for more than a decade as a barista in San Francisco, doesn’t know how old the tree is. He said the former owner, who ran the California Street store for 15 years, didn’t know either.

Gary Gragg, who grows avocado trees at Golden Gate Palms Nursery in Richmond, estimated the tree could be between 40 and 100 years old. Although avocado trees don’t like the ocean winds blowing over San Francisco, Gragg said, they can grow if they’re protected by other trees or a building, like Swalim’s. All avocado trees flower from March to May, he said. Depending on the variety, the fruit is ready to eat between six and 14 months.

While it’s a misconception that avocado trees can’t thrive in Bay Area climates, Gragg said, this tree is exceptionally tall. It’s also distinctive for another reason: A tree this big and old means it probably grew from a seedling decades ago, Gragg said, when there were many more varieties of trees. lawyers. Although Hass accounts for the vast majority of current production, there are in fact more than 1,000 named avocado varieties and many more that have been “lost over time,” he said.

“A lot of those very old trees came from a much larger gene bank of possibilities than what people today throw into their backyards from seed,” said Gragg, who in his spare time browses the Bay Area in search of unusual avocado varieties. could spy.

It is not known what type of avocado the Swalim tree produces. The fruit has the smooth skin of a Mexican avocado, but its round shape and chunky size are more like a Guatemalan avocado, Gragg said. It could be a hybrid of the two, he added. He suspects it is a seedling hybrid, meaning a seed germinated and created a unique fruit.

“It makes me wonder — and you’ll never know, it’s still a mystery — what the exact lineage of the fruit is,” Gragg said.

Ammar Swalim holds one of the avocados that grew from a huge tree, nearly 50 feet tall, in the backyard of his Pacific Heights hardware store.

Ammar Swalim holds one of the avocados that grew from a huge tree, nearly 50 feet tall, in the backyard of his Pacific Heights hardware store.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

Ditka Reiner, who lives near Lafayette Park, was devastated by news that a four-story avocado tree was bearing fruit in her neighborhood. Monday afternoon, she went to see him for herself.

“Incredible! Here?” she asked Swalim. “I have to see him. Can I see it?”

She planned to use her avocados for omelettes, guacamole and salads. (The avocado toast wasn’t on the table, she said. Too trendy.) Reiner is a gardening and cooking enthusiast who makes her own vanilla extract and strawberry syrup. (Coincidentally, his cousin is New York food writer Helen Rosner.)

But even more than the mouth-watering flesh of the avocado, she was touched by Swalim’s generosity.

“I just thought it was really, really generous and friendly,” she said — an example of social media platforming at its best. She told Swalim that when her own lemon tree was in season, she would return to return the favor.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about Swalim’s message. The neighbor upstairs in the store got upset, he said. (He mistakenly thought she had closed her door to what he said was their common court, but he now has access and is distributing lawyers again.) The neighbor refused to answer questions for this story.

Still, while the Pacific Heights tree may be unique, Gragg said, anyone who lives in the Bay Area should try their hand at planting their own tree.

“I have been on a great crusade over the past 25 years: there should be an avocado tree in everyone’s garden. It is one of the only fruits that gives you a highly nutritious caloric value. Most fruits are sweet. But the lawyer,” he said, “gives you everything.”

After news of the tree’s spread, a woman stopped by the Pacific Heights business. She told Swalim, he said, that her grandfather ran a hardware store there a long time ago and she also worked there. (The Chronicle could not reach her for comment.) When her grandfather opened Boegershausen Hardware on California Street in 1908, he planted an avocado tree in the backyard for good luck.

Elena Kadvany is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ekadvany

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