Money Tree: Feeding Australia's avocado obsession

20 September 2019

Money Tree: Feeding Australia's avocado obsession - ABC TV Landline, by Elise Kinsella, 22 September 2019.

An 85-year-old avocado tree in Queensland, dubbed the money tree, has played a huge role in the development of Australia's avocado industry.

Its story, like so many great Australian yarns, began at a pub.

"The seeds from this tree came from the tree in the next street over that was in the grounds of an old hotel on the mountain," owner Lindy Williams said.

Mrs Williams and her husband, John, farm the Mount Tamborine property where the tree is located.

Mr Williams' father-in-law, Alec Kidd, bought the seeds because he wanted to create a windbreak for his house and citrus orchard.

"We believe Alec purchased 20 seeds for a shilling and they were planted in the early 1930s," Mrs Williams said.

In the 1950s, the Mount Tamborine farmer decided to turn his windbreak into a commercial crop.

"It took probably 15 to 20 years for the first trees to grow and develop so they could plant seeds from those trees to also grow and develop," Mrs Williams said.

"It was a slow process and probably took a lot of patience."

The money tree: The prolific 85-year-old tree gave a boost to Australia's avocado industry. (ABC: Steve Keen)

From little things, big things grow

These days, the money tree produces more than a tonne of fruit in a good year.

Mr Anderson sells seedlings grown from the money tree's roots at his nursery in northern NSW

"It's still the best of the best," Mr Williams said.

A nursery nearby in northern New South Wales has turned to the prolific tree to help build the industry.

Owners Graham Anderson and his father have been taking seeds from it for 40 years.

The nursery uses the seeds to grow roots, which it grafts onto stems of other plants, producing trees that fruit far more quickly than those grown from a seed in the ground.

"We like using it in the nursery," Mr Anderson said.

"It grows so well, it's easy to grow, it's easy to work with and it's a little bit resistant to some soil diseases."

Over the years, there have been some unusual payments for the seeds.

"One year, a bottle of Grange Hermitage arrived, which was rather special," Mrs Williams said.

"It is still on the wine rack."

These trades have allowed the money tree's offspring to be nurtured and sent across the country to developing growing regions like Margaret River in Western Australia.

"In this part of the country where the money tree grows, that is really where the industry started and traditionally it was a winter fruit," CEO of Avocado Australia John Tyas said.

"We have struggled to supply sufficient fruit during those summer months, but the south west of Western Australia, the Sunraysia, Riverland and even Tasmania are all areas that can produce avocados in that spring and summer period when demand is really high."

The science of seedlings

Pictured: Prof Neena Mitter in QAAFI's Avocado tissue lab 

While production is growing, nurseries still can't keep up with the demand from farmers.

Scientists at The University of Queensland are working on that problem.

They're developing a new tissue-cloning technique, using a tiny cutting from the money tree.

"We don't need too much, we bring it into the lab, clean it so it is devoid of any pests and pathogens and put into the [growing] media where we remind it to grow," agricultural scientist Professor Neena Mitter said.

"Each and every cell in that one-millimetre cutting has the potential to grow into a plant."

While the technology is still being developed, the Williams are proud of the latest role their extraordinary tree is playing in the industry.

"It is interesting, very interesting, we are watching that closely to see how it develops," Mrs Williams said.

In the meantime, the couple hope their top-shelf tree continues to age like a good bottle of Grange.

Source: Story by ABC TV Landline, by Elise Kinsella, Broadcast Saturday 22 September 2019. Watch Landline story: Money Tree: Feeding Australia's avocado obsession

Contact: Professor Neena Mitter Director Centre for Horticulture Science, QAAFI, The University of Queensland T. +61 7 334 66513 E.