Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The only apricots I ever ate were dried until fairly recently. I always liked the dried ones, but for some reason never considered that it would be possible to eat fresh ones. Strangely enough I never encountered fresh apricots until after I was married. Now I wish I would have found them sooner. They are wonderful.
Apricots are native to Asia, and there is some debate on exactly where, since they were so extensively grown since ancient times, dating back to about 3000 years ago. Their Latin name, Prunus armeniaca is thought to have arisen from an incorrect assumption that apricots were from Armenia. The silk trade with China introduced Europeans to the apricot, and their popularity soared.
Apricots are extremely popular in Middle Eastern countries. Turkey and Iran are the world's biggest producers of apricots, at 21 and 10 percent of the world's 6 billion pounds produced in 2004. In comparison, the U.S. only produces 3 percent of the world's apricot production.
English settlers brought apricots with them to the New World, establishing trees on the East Coast. Spanish missionaries are credited with bringing apricots to California, which is now the biggest producer of apricots in the U.S., producing 95% of the U.S. crop. According to the California Fresh Apricot Council, the first major production area of apricots in California was located in an area south of San Francisco in 1792.
Apricot trees are relatively small, generally pruned to less than twelve feet in cultivation, although they can reach up to 45 feet tall in their native lands. They flower before leaves emerge, producing white flowers similar to those on peach, plum and cherry. Botanically speaking, apricots are classified in the same subgenus as the plum.
Plum and apricot are so similar, they can hybridize. Many of these hybrids have proven desirable for the market. Some describe them as being better than either plums or apricots. The most popular hybrid, the 'pluot' is 75% plum, 25% apricot. Other hybrids you may find available are: the 'plumcot' which is 50% plum, 50% apricot, and the 'aprium' which is 75% apricot, 25% plum.
Some people consider apricot to be a "subtropical" fruit, but it is native to a part of the world which has cold winters. Apricots require a chilling period to flower and fruit properly. This requirement is easily fulfilled in much of the U.S., but apricot production can still be tricky in parts of the U.S. because the trees flower in early spring. If the flowers are killed by a late frost, no apricots will be produced that year. The most reliable areas of production, like California, have cool winters that fulfill the chilling requirement for apricots, but do not have the risk of frosts in the spring.
But that is not to say growing apricots is not possible in regions where late frosts in the spring are common, like Illinois. There are cultivars available, such as 'Goldcot' and 'Harlow' that are selected for later flowering in the spring, reducing the chance that the flowers will be caught by a spring frost.
Apricots can be a good choice for the home garden because they are self-fruitful, meaning you only need one tree to produce fruit. Cross-pollination is not necessary, however cross-pollination has the potential to increase production.
Once I got a taste of a fresh apricot, I absolutely loved them. However, I didn't love the premium price attached to them at the grocery store, so I thought I'd try growing them at home. The cultivars I have are dwarf versions of 'Goldcot' and 'Sweetheart'. 'Sweetheart' is unique in that the pit is edible. Most other apricots and stone fruits like peaches have pits which are inedible because they contain cyanide, which is highly toxic.
Apricots are susceptible to a long list of bacterial and fungal diseases. My trees are four years old now, and I haven't had many problems to date. My only significant issue has been the deer near my house that like to nibble on the buds during the winter. Deer repellent sprays are a must at our house each winter. When and if I need to treat disease on my trees, we have current spray schedules for fruit trees available at the Extension office.
We haven't had the most "ideal" spring to say the least the last couple of years, and just over a year ago I pruned my apricot trees for the first time. Both the cold wet springs and recovering from pruning seem to have delayed my trees a bit. It seems like just as the flowers are in full bloom, a touch of frost hits the area. This is the common risk in growing apricots.
My trees have flowered, but this is the first year that any have set fruit. I won't have a bumper crop this year, but it looks like my husband and I will enjoy about a dozen fresh apricots.
It is far more common to find apricots available as a dried fruit rather than fresh. This is because fresh apricots are extremely fragile and perishable. If they are being picked for fresh market, apricots are picked by hand when mature but still firm and not fully ripe. They are shipped in shallow containers to prevent bruising.
They have a relatively short shelf-life of only one to two weeks, and are highly susceptible to various fruit rots post-harvest. Producers may expose the fruit to sulfur dioxide to delay the development of these post-harvest rots. With all the special handling they require, it's no wonder that translates to higher cost at the grocery store!
Apricots harvested for drying are sometimes picked by shaking the trees mechanically. The fruits are picked when mature and fully ripe, so they actually should be sweeter than those fruits picked for fresh market, which are picked while still firm and not fully ripe. It takes 5.5 pounds of fresh apricots to make one pound of dried apricots.
Whether you try to grow your own or not, keep an eye out for fresh apricots this year. Once you taste them, I bet you'll be hooked!