National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Two Stone Fruits from the Orient APRICOTS and Japanese plums are two more of the great group of stone fruits, or drupes, which include fruit ranging in size from the cherry to the peach, all containing a single hard, woody pit. These two are con sidered together because they are both be lieved to have originated in China. Their routes around the world, however, were quite different, as are the ways in which they are eaten. The apricot, though juicy and aromatic when fresh, is one of the fruits which most Americans seem to prefer dried or canned. Of the more than 200,000 tons a year grown in this country, about 40 percent are dried, 40 percent are commercially canned, and 20 percent are sold fresh. The apricot reached the Mediterranean countries before the time of Christ. It has been claimed that Alexander the Great car ried it to Greece at the time of his conquest of southwestern Asia, in the 4th century B. C. It was long said to have come from Armenia, hence the botanical name Prunus armeniaca, by which it is known to this day. More recent botanical and language re search, however, has indicated that the origi nal home of the apricot was not southwest Asia, as long believed. There is no name for the fruit in either the Hebrew or Sanskrit languages, as would be expected if the fruit was present in the area when these languages were developed. On the other hand, the Chinese used a char acter believed to represent the apricot in writings earlier than 2000 B. c. Also, in China today apricots are found which have all indications of being truly indigenous. Believed to Be Native of China Thus it is now generally believed that the apricot originated in central and western China, and that it had been carried to south west Asia before the time of Alexander the Great. Pliny stated it reached Italy about 100 B. C. It had spread throughout the temperate parts of Europe, including Eng land, before the discovery of America. The Spaniards apparently took the apricot to the New World with the earliest settle ments. It thrived in the drier parts of Mex ico. Seedlings were planted in California at the Spanish missions in the 18th century, and named varieties from Europe were intro duced before 1850. The English also established apricots in Virginia; Capt. John Smith reported in 1629 that apricots were thriving there. However, the apricot has never proved well adapted to the climate of the eastern United States. The name "apricot" comes from a Latin word praecoquum, meaning early ripe. Be cause it blooms very early in the spring, its blossoms are almost always killed in the East by spring frosts. The fruit also tends to crack badly and decay in warm, rainy weather. Apricot growing in the United States is therefore largely confined to the area west of the Rockies, with California producing by far the largest part of the crop. Washington, Oregon, and Utah also produce commercial quantities of apricots. Burbank Promoted Japanese Plums Little is known of the background of the highly colored, juicy, spicy plums of the species P. salicina, known in this country as Japanese. Certain it is that they did not originate in Japan; no plum appears to be native there. Japanese horticulturists say they were introduced into Japan from China some 200 to 400 years ago. It seems almost certain that their native home is in China, perhaps in the southwest part, a region little explored by western botanists. These plums first reached America about 1870; trees from Japan were imported in that vear by a fruit grower of Vacaville, California. They quickly attracted attention, and com mercial propagation soon started. Luther Burbank, the great plant breeder, who moved from Massachusetts to California, imported many kinds, grew numbers of seed lings, and highly publicized the fruit. He gave American names to imported varieties and to selections from his seedlings. More than any other man, Burbank was responsible for the rapid spread and great interest in Japanese plums. These plums apparently were unknown in Europe prior to their introduction into this country. In recent years they have been widely tested in temperate countries through out the world. Hybrids May Be Important In this country they are grown to a limited extent in many of the States. They are early blooming, and the blossoms are subject to killing in areas where spring frost occurs fre quently. On the other hand, they stand sum mer heat and rain better than the European plums, and are of better quality than most of our native kinds. They will cross readily with most kinds of native American plums, and promising varieties are being developed from such crosses. Commercial production is most extensive in California. The large, highly colored plums on fruit stands and markets from mid June through August are mainly varieties of the Japanese, or, more accurately, Oriental plums.