Apricot

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Apricot
Apricot fruit
Apricot fruit
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Prunus
Subgenus: Prunus
Section: Armeniaca
Species: P. armeniaca
Binomial name
Prunus armeniaca
L.

The Apricot (Prunus armeniaca, "Armenian plum" in Latin, syn. Armeniaca vulgaris Lam.) 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 in northern and western China and Central Asia, possibly also Korea and Japan.

Description

Apricot tree in Central Cappadocia, Turkey
Apricot tree in Central Cappadocia, Turkey
Fresh ripe fruit
Fresh ripe fruit

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", smooth except for three ridges running down one side.

Cultivation and uses

History of cultivation

Apricots, raw
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 50 kcal   200 kJ
Carbohydrates     11 g
- Sugars  9 g
- Dietary fibre  2 g  
Fat 0.4 g
Protein 1.4 g
Vitamin A equiv.  96 μg  11%
- β- carotene  1094 μg  10%
Vitamin C  10 mg 17%
Iron  0.4 mg 3%
Percentages are relative to US
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database
Apricots, dried
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 240 kcal   1010 kJ
Carbohydrates     63 g
- Sugars  53 g
- Dietary fibre  7 g  
Fat 0.5 g
Protein 3.4 g
Vitamin A equiv.  180 μg  20%
- β- carotene  2163 μg  20%
Vitamin C  1 mg 2%
Iron  2.7 mg 22%
Percentages are relative to US
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database

The Apricot was first cultivated in China in about 3000 BC. In Armenia it was known from ancient times, having been brought along the Silk Road; it has been cultivated there so long it is often thought to be native there. 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 name 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).

Apricots are also cultivated in Egypt and are among the common fruits well known there. The season in which apricot is present in the market in Egypt is very short. There is even an Egyptian proverb that says "Fel meshmesh" (English "in the apricot") which is used to refer to something that will not happen because the apricot disappears from the market in Egypt so shortly after it has appeared. Egyptians usually dry apricot and sweeten it then use it to make a drink called "amar el deen".

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.

Cultivation

Fresh apricots on display.
Fresh apricots on display.
Dried organic apricot, produced in Turkey. The colour is dark because it has not been treated with sulfur dioxide (E220).
Dried organic apricot, produced in Turkey. The colour is dark because it has not been treated with sulfur dioxide (E220).

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 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 are grown commercially in the United States, primarily in California and Washington.

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.

Production trends

Apricot output in 2005
Apricot output in 2005
Top Ten Apricot Producers — 2005
(1,000 tonnes)
Flag of Turkey Turkey 390
Flag of Iran Iran 285
Flag of Italy Italy 232
Flag of Pakistan Pakistan 220
Flag of France France 181
Flag of Algeria Algeria 145
Flag of Spain Spain 136
Flag of Japan Japan 123
Flag of Morocco Morocco 103
Flag of Syria Syria 101
World Total 1916
Source:

Turkey is the leading apricot producer, followed by Iran. In Armenia apricots are grown in Ararat Valley.

Kernels

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 claimed 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 fibre to volume ratio, dried apricots are sometimes used to relieve constipation or induce diarrhea. Effects can be felt after eating as little as three.

Etymology

The scientific name armeniaca was first used by Gaspard Bauhin in his Pinax Theatri Botanici (page 442), referring to the species as mala armeniaca "Armenian apple". Most believed and many still believe that it came from Pliny the Elder; however, it is not used by Pliny or any other classical author, even in Late Latin. Linnaeus took up Bauhin's epithet in the first edition of his Species Plantarum in 1753. A popular name for this species is apricock.

The epithet probably is derived from an etymological identification of a tree mentioned in Pliny with the apricot. Pliny says "We give the name of apples (mala) ... to peaches (persica) and pomegranates (granata) ...." Later in the same section he states "The Asiatic peach ripens at the end of autumn, though an early variety (praecocia) ripens in summer - these were discovered within the last thirty years ...."

From this praecocia comes the standard etymology of "apricot". The classical authors connected armeniaca with praecocia: Pedanius Dioscorides' "... Ἀρμενιακὰ, Ῥωμαιστὶ δὲ βρεκόκκια" and Martial's "Armeniaca, et praecocia latine dicuntur". Putting together the Armeniaca and the mala obtains the well-known epithet, but there is no evidence the ancients did it; Armeniaca alone meant the apricot.

Accordingly the American Heritage Dictionary under apricot derives praecocia from praecoquus, "cooked or ripened beforehand", becoming Greek πραικόκιον "apricot" and Arabic al-barqūq "the plum". The English name comes from earlier "abrecock" in turn from the Middle French abricot, from Catalan abercoc. Both the latter and Spanish albaricoque were adaptations of the Arabic, dating from the Moorish occupation of Spain. However, in Argentina and Chile the word for "apricot" is damasco, which probably indicates that to the Spanish settlers of Argentina the fruit was associated with Damascus in Syria.

The anecdotal evidence is the only link between the apricot and Pliny's tree, but even if true, the origin of the word is not the origin of the tree. The Romans had no idea why the tree was called armeniaca and presumed as did later botanists that it was "from Armenia", whatever that should mean. Scientifically nothing at all about the evolution or production of the wild tree or any of its cultivars or about the native range at the time of the Romans or any other time in history is implied. At best the tradition reflects Roman literary opinion concerning some now obscure horticultural events.

In Armenian it is called tziran ( ծիրան), in Chinese it is called xìng ( 杏), in Hindi it is called zardalu, and in Urdu it is called khúbánī (ﺧﯘﺑﺎﻧﯽ).

In culture

The Chinese associate the apricot with education and medicine. Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher in 4th century BCE, had told a story that Confucius taught his students in a forum among the wood of apricot.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion sings, "What puts the ape in the apricot? Courage!"

Apricots were used by the Australian Aborigines as an aphrodisiac. A special tea was prepared from the apricot stone, while the fruit was crushed and smeared over the erogenous regions.

Among tank-driving soldiers, apricots are taboo, by superstition. Tankers will not eat apricots, allow apricots onto their vehicles, and often will not even say the word "apricot". This superstition stems from Sherman tank breakdowns purportedly happening in the presence of cans of apricots.

Dreaming of apricots, in English folklore, is said to be good luck.

The Turkish idiom "bundan iyisi Şam'da kayısı" (literally, the only thing better than this is an apricot in Damascus) means "it doesn't get any better than this" and used when something is the very best it can be; like a delicious apricot from Damascus.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints includes in their Children's Songbook the song "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree" describing an apricot tree in bloom.

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