Selling fruit at markets, as we do, we hear lots of stories and memories about fruit, and apricots seem to have a special place in people’s hearts. An apricot tree has been common in backyards since way back when, and lots of people have special memories of the smell and taste of eating sweet, ripe apricots on a hot summer’s day, whether they were visiting Grandma, or pinching fruit from the neighbour’s place. Here’s a bit about why we love apricots.
Though their proper name is Prunus armeniaca, apricots probably come from in China rather than Armenia; the earliest known writings about apricots are from the time of the emperor Yu, around 2200 BC, and some sources say they were known in India in 3000 BC. It gives a whole new twist to the notion of “heritage” fruit, doesn’t it?
There are dozens of different varieties of apricots. We grow 11 at our place (and are adding more all the time), chosen because they ripen consecutively, which gives us ripe apricots from late Spring right through until mid-Summer. Our varieties, in order of ripening are:
A lively flavoured sweet apricot with tart skin, which ripens to a lovely strong-flavoured apricot
A large apricot, can be a bit prone to cracking and deformities on some trees in some seasons, but ripens well on the tree and has a good flavour
A large, egg-shaped apricot, can crack easily in the rain, but wonderful intense flavour when ripe, a really special apricot
A medium to large apricot, brightly coloured, quite sweet. Castlebrite are a good, reliable apricot, not very strong in flavour but nice for eating and jam. They start sweetening up on the tree as they start looking ripe, and hang well and continue to ripen without being too prone to falling off. Trees are very vulnerable to blossom blight, and the fruit can be prone to brown rot.
A medium to small, round pale apricot with firm texture, and delicious intense apricot flavour. They ripen well on the tree and are not inclined to fall off easily. Tend to be a very spreading tree.
A dark orange apricot, which is very sour when it first turns orange and starts to look ripe, but develops intense flavour and sweetness if left to ripen on the tree for another week or two. An apricot that really needs taste testing before picking to ensure sugars have properly developed. Great eaten fresh, and good for bottling, but makes a very dark jam.
One of our favourite all-purpose apricots, they sweeten early on the tree, hang well and are good for eating, preserving and drying. They are also a reliable cropper, and not particularly vulnerable to disease. Our best recommendation for a backyard tree.
A popular variety world-wide, but new for us, so we can’t tell you anything about it yet!
An old-fashioned favourite, a slightly flattened, very sweet, pale orange apricot that ripens from the inside, so they are sweet and delicious to eat even when they look a bit green. Trevatt are very soft textured, and make fantastic jam, but lose their shape immediately when cooked, so not great for bottling.
Another old favourite with a distinctive flavour, darker colour and firmer flesh than Trevatt, Moorpark are a late apricot, and not a good cropper in our climate, but are highly prized for their sweetness. Prone to freckle, which is a skin disease that affects the look of the fruit, but not the taste.
Another new variety in our orchard, we haven’t tried them yet, and are looking forward to eating the first ones this season. They’re the latest to ripen, so hopefully will extend the season.
Apricot trees are very vigorous, and are usually grafted onto plum rootstocks (or occasionally peach). They can grow into massive trees, and are absolutely gorgeous in spring when they’re covered with fragrant pink and white blossom.
They’re fabulously good for you, both your health (high in fibre, vitamins A & C, and masses of antioxidants), and apparently also your love life – according to Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
Apricot kernels have been used as a cancer treatment since at least the 17th century and are still available in many health food shops for this purpose, though modern science is conflicted about whether it actually works. The kernels contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous in large doses but fine in small doses, and in fact gives a lovely marzipan flavour if the kernels are cooked with the jam.
Apricots can be really tricky to grow because they need a very specific climate to produce fruit. They need a cold winter for the fruit to set, but are tragically sensitive to frost in spring, which can damage both the flowers and small fruit. They also need warm conditions in spring and summer because they ripen so early.
One of the main reasons we love apricots is because we can grow them! Our farm has just the right combination of cold winters and hot summers, and the huge advantage of being almost frost free.
Sadly, they’re also prone to fungal diseases, especially blossom blight and brown rot, as well as gummosis. They’re usually pruned in late summer or early autumn, while the weather is still warm, to help prevent spread of disease.
As well as pruning, the other main maintenance job with apricots is fruit thinning in spring, because they’re a bugger for biennial bearing (heavy crop one year, followed by a light crop the next year), and thinning breaks the cycle, but the trick is, you have to do it every year!
They sound like hard work, don’t they? They’re probably the fruit tree we hear the most complaints about, but in fact with the right climate, the right pruning, good hygiene, organic fungicides and good pest control, it’s quite possible to keep your apricot tree healthy and bearing well (really, trust us!).
All that hard work of getting a crop is sooooo worth it, because apricots are wonderfully versatile. If you’re lucky enough to get a glut, they make delicious jam, and lend themselves to preserving and drying. With a little work in the kitchen, you can capture those delicious memories of eating fragrant ripe apricots straight from the tree to enjoy all year.