The Apricot (Prunus armeniaca, “Armenian plum” in Latin, syn. Armeniaca vulgaris Lam., Armenian: Ծիրան “Tsiran”) is a species of Prunus, classified with the plum in the subgenus Prunus. The native range is somewhat uncertain due to its extensive prehistoric cultivation, but most likely is India.
It is a small tree, 8–12 m tall, with a trunk up to 40 cm diameter and a dense, spreading canopy. The leaves are ovate, 5–9 cm long and 4–8 cm wide, with a rounded base, a pointed tip and a finely serrated margin. The flowers are 2–4.5 cm diameter, with five white to pinkish petals; they are produced singly or in pairs in early spring before the leaves. The fruit is a drupe similar to a small peach, 1.5–2.5 cm diameter (larger in some modern cultivars), from yellow to orange, often tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun; its surface is usually pubescent. The single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell, often called a “stone”, with a grainy, smooth texture except for three ridges running down one side.
Cultivation And Uses
History Of Cultivation: The Apricot was first cultivated in India in about 3000 BC. In Armenia it was known from ancient times – it has been cultivated there so long it is often thought to be native there. An archeological excavation in Armenia found apricot seeds in an Eneolithic-era site. Its introduction to Greece is attributed to Alexander the Great, and the Roman General Lucullus (106-57 B.C.E.) also exported some trees, cherry, white heart cherry and apricot from Armenia to Europe. Subsequent sources were often much confused over the origin of the species. Loudon (1838) believed it had a wide native range including Armenia, Caucasus, the Himalaya, China and Japan. Nearly all sources presume that because it is named armeniaca, the tree must be native to or have originated in Armenia as the Romans knew it. For example, De Poerderlé asserts: “Cet arbre tire son nom de l’Arménie, province d’Asie, d’où il est originaire et d’où il fut porté en Europe ….” (“this tree takes its name from Armenia, province of Asia, where it is native, and whence it was brought to Europe ….”) There is no scientific evidence to support such a view. Today the cultivars have spread to all parts of the globe with climates that support it.
Apricots have been cultivated in Persia since antiquity, and dried ones were an important commodity on Persian trade routes. Apricots remain an important fruit in modern-day Iran where they are known under the common name of Zard-ālū (Persian: زردالو).
Egyptians usually dry apricot and sweeten it then use it to make a drink called “‘amar al-dīn”.
More recently, English settlers brought the apricot to the English colonies in the New World. Most of modern American production of apricots comes from the seedlings carried to the west coast by Spanish missionaries. Almost all U.S. production is in California, with some in Washington and Utah.
Many apricots are also cultivated in Australia, particularly South Australia where they are commonly grown in the region known as the Riverland and in a small town called Mypolonga in the Lower Murray region of the state. In states other than South Australia apricots are still grown, particularly in Tasmania and western Victoria and southwest New South Wales, but they are less common than in South Australia.
Although often thought of as a “subtropical” fruit, this is actually false – the Apricot is native to a continental climate region with cold winters, although it can grow in Mediterranean climates very well. The tree is slightly more cold-hardy than the peach, tolerating winter temperatures as cold as −30 °C or lower if healthy. The limiting factor in apricot culture is spring frosts: They tend to flower very early, around the time of the vernal equinox even in northern locations like the Great Lakes region, meaning spring frost often kills the flowers. Furthermore, the trees are sensitive to temperature changes during the winter season. In their native China, winters can be very cold, but temperatures tend to be more stable than in Europe and especially North America, where large temperature swings can occur in winter. The trees do need some winter cold (even if minimal) to bear and grow properly and do well in Mediterranean climate locations since spring frosts are less severe but there is some cool winter weather to allow a proper dormancy. The dry climate of these areas is best for good fruit production. Hybridisation with the closely related Prunus sibirica (Siberian Apricot; hardy to −50°C but with less palatable fruit) offers options for breeding more cold-tolerant plants.
Apricot cultivars are most often grafted on plum or peach rootstocks. A cutting of an existing apricot plant provides the fruit characteristics such as flavour, size, etc., but the rootstock provides the growth characteristics of the plant. Apricots and plums can hybridize with each other and produce fruit that are variously called pluots, plumcots, or apriums.
Apricots have a chilling requirement of 300 to 900 chilling units. They are hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8. Some of the more popular cultivars of apricots include Blenheim, Wenatchee Moorpark, Tilton, and Perfection.
There is an old adage that an apricot tree will not grow far from the mother tree. The implication is that apricots are particular about the soil conditions in which they are grown. They prefer a well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. If fertilizer is needed, as indicated by yellow-green leaves, then 1/4 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer should be applied in the second year. Granular fertilizer should be scattered beneath the branches of the tree. An additional 1/4 pound should be applied for every year of age of the tree in early spring, before growth starts. Apricots are self-compatible and do not require pollinizer trees, with the exception of the ‘Moongold’ and ‘Sungold’ cultivars, which can pollinate each other. Apricots are susceptible to numerous bacterial diseases including bacterial canker and blast, bacterial spot and crown gall. They are susceptible to an even longer list of fungal diseases including brown rot, Alternaria spot and fruit rot, and powdery mildew. Other problems for apricots are nematodes and viral diseases, including graft-transmissible problems.
Seeds or kernels of the apricot grown in central Asia and around the Mediterranean are so sweet that they may be substituted for almonds. The Italian liqueur Amaretto and amaretti biscotti are flavoured with extract of apricot kernels rather than almonds. Oil pressed from these cultivars has been used as cooking oil.
Medicinal and non – Food Uses
Cyanogenic glycosides (found in most stone fruit seeds, bark, and leaves) are found in high concentration in apricot seeds. Laetrile, a purported alternative treatment for cancer, is extracted from apricot seeds. As early as the year 502, apricot seeds were used to treat tumors, and in the 17th century, apricot oil was used in England against tumors and ulcers. However, in 1980 the National Cancer Institute in the USA described laetrile to be an ineffective cancer treatment.
In Europe, apricots were long considered an aphrodisiac, and were used in this context in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as an inducer of childbirth, as depicted in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
Due to their high fiber to volume ratio, dried apricots are sometimes used to relieve constipation or induce diarrhea. Effects can be felt after eating as few as three.
Research shows that of any food, apricots possess the highest levels and widest variety of carotenoids. Carotenoids are antioxidants that help prevent heart disease, reduce “bad cholesterol” levels, and protect against cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, apricots are considered helpful in regenerating body fluids, detoxifying, and quenching thirst.
Some claim that the kernels also have healthy properties, including toning the respiratory system and alleviating a cough. However, the tip of the apricot holds a concentrated amount of the chemical laetrile, which can be upsetting to the system. The tips of the seeds should be removed and consumption should be limited to no more than five a day.
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